We’ve all heard it: Never discuss religion or politics at work. It’s sound advice, right? With so many strongly competing opinions, lack of clear information and only cursory knowledge of “the issues,” the smart professional would keep their thoughts on such matters on the down low. Well, I, for one, am notorious for tossing out this advice with the bath water! I just can’t resist engaging in discussions on these juicy topics!
Given our current political climate coupled with the fact that the holiday season is nearly here, the Presidential election is just one year away and campaign season is already in full swing, I reached out to an expert on the matter, Steve Kraske, to help all of us navigate through these tricky conversations while interacting with friends and colleagues. Steve hosts “Up to Date” on KCUR-FM, Kansas City’s public radio station. He is a political columnist for The Kansas City Star and is a journalism professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
CLC: As we enter both the election and holiday seasons, is it possible to heed the warning to avoid discussing religion and politics in the work environment?
Steve: Yes, it’s possible to avoid politics and religion at the office. Is it difficult? Sure. Is it especially difficult in a record-setting presidential election year with more candidates running for the GOP nomination than ever before in American history and one of them is named Donald Trump? Of course! But given the increasingly sharp partisan divide in this country that has Democrats and Republicans viewing each other as the Hatfields or the McCoys, you might be wise to avoid opinionated political talk around the water cooler. Disagreements on all things partisan are too intense these days to risk your next pay raise or promotion.
CLC: Makes sense, but in terms of building relationships with others, it is very likely that people of both varying faiths and political persuasions will cross paths with one another. Seems almost impossible to avoid these topics completely. There must be some way to engage in rational, balanced, non-confrontational discourse, right?
Steve: Sure, here are a few tips I would share with your readers. First, listen. It’s harder than it seems. We’re a nation of knee-jerk gum-flappers with careful listening often an afterthought. But listening has its own rewards, including increased understanding, not to mention less likelihood that you’ll stick your foot in your mouth.
Second, don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions. Democrats and Republicans aren’t far apart on 80 percent of issues. It’s the other 20 that grab all the headlines. Spend a few minutes hearing someone out and really working to understand where they’re coming from. You might be surprised to learn that you don’t disagree on all that much.
Finally, if a colleague is always eager to argue, and that’s not what you want to do, A-V-O-I-D them!
CLC: In order to understand one another’s positions on various topics in the news, what questions should we be asking each other?
Steve: Non-judgmental, open-ended questions are great ways to engage in conversation. If someone is determined to talk politics, a question like, “What did you think of the debate last night?” is better in an office environment than, “Bernie Sanders sure stunk up the place, didn’t he?” Another good question: “Why is this so important to you?” That might help you learn something you didn’t know about a colleague.
CLC: Love the idea of question asking! In fact, that is one of the key principles of the Coffee Lunch Coffee Platform. Thinking about the upcoming Presidential election, it seems the national conversation is full of platitudes and over-hyped one-liners instead of clear platforms and rational dialogue. Do you have any advice to share with the Coffee Lunch Coffee community about the best ways to gather accurate information about and an understanding of the various political candidates’ platforms?
Steve: This answer won’t be surprising given my background: Reputable news sites such as CNN, The Kansas City Star and KCUR, offer lots of straightforward information about issues and where the candidates stand. If it’s a local race, another good way is to show up at a political event, look the candidate in the eye and ask a question. You might be surprised by how much you can find out. Also, check out candidate websites and read their policy statements. But read them critically because they are carefully crafted to appeal to the widest possible swath of the electorate, and they often leave out crucial details.
Thanks, Steve, for giving the CLC Community sage advice to take into account now and into the future as we build relationships with family, friend and colleagues. Happy Election Day!