It is virtually impossible to escape talk of the U.S. presidential election right now, and though it can be polarizing, bosses shouldn’t try to keep political discussions out of the office, says expert Caroline Hopper.
In fact, stifling such conversations at work can be detrimental, says Hopper, managing director of the Citizenship & American Identity Program at the Aspen Institute, a Washington DC-headquartered nonpartisan, non-profit educational organization.
“Workplace leaders are nervous about our political tensions disrupting the workplace. They may respond by telling employees not to discuss politics at work and to retain neutrality. But such an approach does not serve anyone,” Hopper tells CNBC Make It.
If individuals can’t talk amongst themselves, then the political discourse is left to the loudest, and often most polarizing, voices with public platforms, she says.
“Engaging around contentious issue is not the problem. Rather, the problem is that we are engaging around these issues in ways that are unproductive,” Hopper tells CNBC Make It.
“We don’t need fewer arguments; we need better arguments,” Hopper says.
Leaders at work should guide their employees to have elevated conversations about politics, according to Hopper.
“Instead of requiring people to leave their views at the door, business leaders should empower employees and create norms for productive dialogue,” Hopper says, pointing to the Better Arguments Project, a national initiative from the Aspen Institute, The Allstate Corporation and educational non-profit Facing History and Ourselves to bridge divides by helping Americans to engage more productively.
Here are guidelines for engaging in productive disagreements.
Don’t try to win
“The first principle is to take winning off the table. This might be the most difficult step for many people, especially when the stakes are so high, but this step is hugely important,” Hopper says.
Instead, both parties should make the goal of the discussion to reach a greater understanding.
“If you enter an exchange with the purpose of defeating the other person, you will be listening to what they are saying in order to refute their ideas. Facts become ammunition, rather than tools,” Hopper says.
“But if you take winning of the table for that exchange, you will be able to listen in order to understand their ideas. Drawing this boundary allows for this kind of open exchange. Some people may ultimately change their minds, but it does not need to be the purpose of the exchange.”
If you are just waiting to respond your colleague as soon as they finish talking, you aren’t engaging productively. Be willing to actually listen to what the person in front of you is saying, whether you think you will agree or not.
“Prioritize relationships and listen passionately. Don’t think of your coworker in terms of how they voted,” Hopper says. “Rather, think of them as your colleague or your friend first, and aim to walk away from the engagement caring more about them than you care about their opinion.”
Learn what experience formed the opinion
“Pay attention to context. No belief is formed in a vacuum; our opinions are informed by all kinds of context, whether it’s lived experiences, information we have access to, or cultures we practice,” Hopper says. “Try to understand why your coworker holds their believes, not just what their beliefs are.”
Then, self reflect on why you have your political beliefs.
Be ready to be uncomfortable in your vulnerability
Having a productive disagreement is hard.
“In many ways, it is against our human nature to step outside of our comfort zone to engage with someone who won’t simply reconfirm our existing views, ” Hopper says.
“But this behavior is necessary, and we believe it is contagious. The more we do it, the more others will do the same.”
Be willing to learn
“Make room to transform. You won’t get anywhere if you’re unwilling to yield any points or possibly walk away with a new viewpoint,” Hopper says. “Treat the argument as a learning experience, and be ready to have your assumptions challenged.”
Know when a discussion will not be productive
The frame work of a productive disagreement can only operate in “the realm of facts,” Hopper says. “Factually untrue statements and false-equivalencies can and should be challenged.”
And there are some instances where you won’t be able to have a productive conversation. If one person is being racist, for example.
“A ‘better argument’ is one in which all parties respect the humanity of the others,” Hopper says. “So there are instances in which a line must be drawn, and exchange cannot be productive. In those cases, there is other kinds of work to be done, by some parties more than others.”
While it’s a lot of effort to go trough a productive disagreement, the benefit can be worth it.
“We often emerge with more nuanced, deeper insights and stronger solutions to the problems that affect us all. Workplaces will be at a strategic advantage if they encourage, rather than limit, these productive exchanges of ideas,” Hopper says.