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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2004

Think twice before discussing hot political topics at work

By Dawn Sagario
The Des Moines Register

Tempted to join in the latest water-cooler banter swirling around presidential candidates and their stance on gay marriage?

One author says to bite your tongue when you're drawn to jump into politically themed conversations at work.

"People have very strong opinions about politics," said Barbara Pachter, a business coach and trainer in New Jersey. "People take these opinions very personally."

Talking politics at work can sometimes quickly morph into heated arguments. Pachter advises steering clear of such political discussions while at work.

"You may say something that insults a co-worker or your boss," she said. "You can alter people's opinions of you, sometimes not favorably, if they disagree with your comments." In her book, "The Power of Positive Confrontation" ($14.95, Marlowe & Co.), Pachter includes five ways to avoid what she calls career-killing political conversations:

  • Quickly excuse yourself. Say something like, "I just remembered, I'm supposed to make a call. I'll see you later." Pachter said this is usually the easiest technique.
  • Change the topic. Ignore the question and bring up another topic. Try: "I remember what it is I wanted to tell you," or, "I'm burnt out talking about this. Let me tell you about what happened."
  • Respond with humor. Have a standard line. Pachter's personal favorite: Telling people, "Don't go there!" when asked something she doesn't want to discuss. (Have a smile on your face and twinkle in your eye when you say it, Pachter said.)
  • Answer with a question. If someone asks you who you're voting for, reply with, "Oh, who do you want me to vote for?" That tosses the question back in the person's court. After the person's reply, have a comeback like, "Oh, I hear he's doing well in the polls."
  • Be assertive. Politely, but firmly, tell the person that you're uncomfortable discussing the topic at work.

Pachter recommended another alternative: Use defusing statements.

If someone says, "I'll be voting for candidate X," respond with, "Well, that's interesting."

Pachter said she doesn't see a "good side" to sharing your political beliefs with co-workers.

"That's why in the voting booth you close the curtain," she said, "and that's why it's private."

A business consultant opts for the direct and assertive approach rather than sidestepping the issue.

Nan Rutter, president of Rutter Communications, suggested this response: "I appreciate your interest. But I'm not comfortable answering that question."

Despite having disparate political views with a boss or colleague, it's more important to maintain a good working relationship, Rutter said.

It's difficult to determine how someone will react to the things said in politically charged conversations, she said. "But if there is some controversy, then we weather it."

The focus should be on building strong workplace camaraderie, Rutter said.

"If the relationship is solid, then there's a good chance that the person will respect the fact that we have a viewpoint that differs from theirs," she said.