Grey Matters: Should co-workers discuss politics?

Discussing politicsISSUE: This election year, our nation is deeply divided over who should lead our country for the next four years. In this week’s Grey Matters, we look at the issue of talking about politics at work. Specifically, is there any reason for a Trump supporter and a Hillary supporter to talk about this year’s election? This story is set in San Diego, California.

BACKGROUND:  Bill grabbed his tray and went to the cash register. He looked around to find someone to lunch with. He was attending a meeting at headquarters, and he remembered the days when he knew everyone in the cafeteria. He paid for his burger and fries and then headed to an empty table in the corner near the television showing CNN news coverage of the Democratic convention. When he went up to get a couple packets of salt and some ketchup, he ran into Ann, a woman he used to work with.

“Well, what on earth are you doing back here?” Ann asked.

“Meetings,” Bill replied. He noticed that Ann had her food in a to-go container, but he figured he’d ask anyways. “You have time to join me for lunch?”

Ann checked her iPhone. “I was gonna eat at my desk, but I’m free for the next half hour.”

“I’d love to hear what’s going on with the old gang with the reorg.”

Ann followed Bill to his table, and they chatted for a little bit. The CNN news anchor played a clip of Donald Trump’s reaction to prior night’s speakers. He said he wanted to hit them so hard their heads would spin.

“What kind of idiot would vote for him?” Ann asked and then took a bite of her tuna sandwich.

Bill put down his hamburger. “Our country needs someone like him. At least he’s not a criminal, like Hillary.”

Ann was about to respond when Raul, the HR manager who used to work with them, came up to the table with his tray. “Mind if I join you?”

“If you don’t mind listening to Bill talking about how Donald Trump is the Messiah and then me respond by telling him how Trump is more like the lead in a movie called Bad Jesus.”

“Woah. I’m definitely glad I stopped by,” Raul said. He sat down beside Ann.

“Good going Ann,” Bill said. “I’m sure HR has a policy against talking about politics in the workplace.  We’re probably gonna be written up.”

“Au contraire,” Raul said. “I think it’s great that you two are discussing politics.”

“What?” Bill and Ann asked in unison.

“As co-workers, we bounce ideas off each other all the time. We identify goals, debate strategy, and talk about things that matter to this company and will make this company more money. This company is better because of the discussion. We don’t always agree, but we listen to each other.”

“I’m sorry I inadvertently called you an idiot because you’re voting for an idiot,” Ann said to Bill.

“You see what I’m dealing with?” Bill asked Raul. “Why even bother to have a discussion?”

“Let’s put aside this one decision that we all need to make in November. Let’s not discuss the presidency, but talk about a different decision we will all have to make in November. Ann, what’s one issue that you are concerned about locally?”

“I really want to see Prop 67 passed,” Ann said.

“What’s that?” Bill asked.

“Prop 67 would ban single-use plastic bags and mandate that grocery stores charge $0.10 for reusable bags.”

“Why is that important to you?” Raul asked.

“I go to the beach almost every weekend, and I’m so sick of seeing all those plastic bags. They get in the water, they’re on the shore, they’re stuck in the ice plant on the cliffs. A lot of cities have already done away with them. I just think we do it statewide.”

“What’s an issue important to you this year?” Raul asked Bill.

“I’d love to see the Chargers stay in San Diego,” Bill said. “I love watching them play, and I don’t want them to move to LA.”

“You can’t watch them on TV?” Ann asked.

“It’s not the same. I used to go to football games at Jack Murphy Stadium with my dad, and I’ve taken my kids to game. I have a grandson who’s two. I’d love to be able to continue that tradition with him.”

“I didn’t know you had a grandson,” Ann said.

“I know. It’s hard to believe. I’ve already bought him his first Chargers’ jersey. I took my step-grandson to a couple games last year. He’s seven, and he was so excited!

“I have a granddaughter who just turned eight,” Ann said.

“We should go a game this year,” Bill said.

“Perhaps I’ll wanna vote to keep the Chargers here,” Ann replied.

Raul took a bite of his tuna melt and listened as Ann talked more about going to the beach and Bill talked about the Chargers. At the end of the lunch, Ann told Bill to email her about the Chargers’ game, and Bill was going to get his family to join Ann the following weekend at a beach cleanup.

COMMENTARY: First, I recognize that this story seems completely unrealistic in its ending. It’s almost impossible to imagine that Bill and Ann would agree to get together and do charity work and go a ballgame together. More likely, the conversation would have ended with screaming and profanity.

But why? Why can’t we disagree but still be civil to each other? When did we lose the distinction between having a disagreement and being disagreeable?

Raul makes a great point about how in the workplace, when we’re debating ideas about things affecting companies we work for, we engage in what I’ll call “agreeable disagreement.” Co-workers have to listen to each other and engage in civil discourse all the time. We aren’t able to have meetings with only the people at the company who support our ideas.

But in our personal lives, too many of us only discuss politics with people who are like-minded.

This tendency to seek out information that supports our existing belief is a deep-rooted logical fallacy known as “confirmation bias.” We only want to hear things consistent with our beliefs. This is the reason people watch CNN or MSNBC (but never the other). We don’t watch cable news to get information about the world. We watch it because the networks provides commentators who support our political views. Watching “smart” people make arguments in support of our positions makes us feel smarter.

Science has shown that we can become addicted to being right. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, “when you argue and win, your brain floods with adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible . . . . It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.” Click here for the link to the full article.

I will be honest. More so than anyone else (ask my husband if you disagree), I am addicted to being right. I love being right. I have to be right. And I will debate and argue with you until you not only agree with me but admit that you were wrong, and I was right. It’s a toxic addiction (ask my prior boyfriends). But I am working on it! And if I can change, then anyone can.

How do we start talking with others about politics?

First. Don’t talk about the Presidential race. Too often, we’ve adopted a litmus test of “Who are you voting for for President?” before we will engage in any political conversation with a person, the theory being that if a person supports the other candidate, then ipso facto, he or she is insane, and there’s no talking to that person about anything.

Second. We will vote on dozens of other things this November. I’ve already formed an opinion about who I think the next President of the United States should be, but I know nothing much else that will be on the ballot this November. Who are the people who are running for school board? We might both agree that we don’t someone on the school board who thinks the dinosaurs went extinct because an asteroid hit the earth and the dinosaurs all became gay (a line from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix show that has become my summer guilty pleasure).

Third. Let’s not focus on goals and not positions. Raul forced Ann and Bill to talk about something important to them. Ann talked about keeping beaches clean. Bill talked about the joy of going to a football game. The goal was not to get Ann or Bill to agree to a particular position. But to get them to talk to each other. By listening, we learn more about other people, and we gain an understanding where even if we don’t agree, we can respect the other person’s opinion. Ann may think that public spending on a football stadium is a bad policy idea, but she can appreciate that Bill enjoys spending time with his grandkids. Bill may think that it’s silly to ban plastic bags, but he can’t object to Ann wanting clean beaches.

Fourth. Learn about the “smaller” races in this year’s election. Sometimes, the people on the city council can have a much greater impact on the people in our communities than the President.

Fifth. Let’s watch the WAY we approach something. The objective can’t be changing someone’s views. Here’s some advice I gave last week with my discussion on religion. Talk to someone about what issues are important to them. They might share your views, and it would bring you closer because you have something in common. But also be prepared if the person says, “I’d rather not talk about that.” And then respect that person’s views.

Let’s talk about politics with people who don’t share our views but let’s practice “agreeable disagreement” and not let our different views divide us.

Let me know your views on this subject by commenting on my blog or on Facebook.