Workplace Etiquette | 3 Tips for Dealing with Politics (or Other Touchy Subjects)

by Burl Stamp

Regardless of how you lean, leave politics at home.

Sometimes, inspiration for my weekly blog post comes from unexpected places – like a quiet, late-evening dinner on the road.

After a successful day with a client recently, I arrived back at my hotel for a later-than-usual dinner. There were only a few people left in the restaurant, and I was seated near a table of three gentlemen. While I wasn’t interested in eavesdropping, it was impossible to not hear their conversation in the quiet room.

From their discussion it was clear that they all worked for the same company and were traveling together on business. Two middle-aged men were obviously more senior managers, and they were accompanied by a junior colleague who appeared to be in his 20s.

Workplace Etiquette

What surprised me was how their discussion turned to politics. One of the senior managers leaned right, while the other leaned left. And the younger man? It was impossible to tell because he said not one word during the conversation – except to order another beer when the waiter approached the table. Clearly, he was uncomfortable.

Things have changed – and not for the better. Early in my career I never knew the politics of my managers. It was simply understood that your political views were irrelevant to the important work we were doing on behalf of patients.

Certainly, everyone has a right to his or her opinion. But especially in today’s highly charged, divided environment, expressing that opinion can potentially harm the important connections and relationships that we need with patients and with colleagues. Following are several workplace etiquette tips for navigating during times when many individuals’ natural reluctance to discuss politics has evaporated.

1. Recognize that you can’t reliably predict someone else’s views

I’ve met liberals from rural Alabama and conservatives from the heart of San Francisco. We tend to think that because we know someone’s economic/social status, background or where they are from that we can predict their political views. We also tend to believe that others who seem like us would have the same political leanings that we have. Many, many times, we’re wrong.

2. Be ready with neutral responses, especially to patients’ or family members’ opinions

Today, it is more likely that patients or family members may bring up unsolicited political comments. When a patient remarks, “Isn’t President Trump __________,” your response should be the same whether they finish that sentence with “wonderful” or “terrible.” Replies that acknowledge the patient’s statement but neither agree nor disagree with him work best, such as:

  • “Yes, I have friends who like President Trump and others who disagree with him.”
  • “Yes, there are a lot of people who support (or disagree) with President Trump.”
  • “You know, I’ve heard both positive and negative comments from the patients I take care of.”

workplace etiquette

3. Then immediately change the subject
Your neutral response should be followed by a respectful attempt to move the conversation to a topic related to the patient’s care. And the best way to divert the patient’s conversation is with a question, such as:
  • “So, how is your pain this afternoon?”
  • “I noticed that you ate most of your lunch. Do you feel like you’re getting your appetite back?”
  • “I saw you had visitors earlier. Were those your children?”

We all have a right to our opinions about politics or virtually any other issue. But expressing them on topics that are contentious and have nothing to do with the important work at hand is simply too risky. Doing so can create barriers that threaten the relationships that are essential to strong teamwork and to providing an exceptional experience for patients.

Stamp & Chase offers unexpected solutions to universal challenges facing leading healthcare organizations. To learn more about our robust tools and approaches that help healthcare leaders transform patient and staff engagement, visit Stamp & Chase.

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