Debrett's Ask the Expert: There are ways to discuss the referendum, religion, politics – even if your view is different to most of your colleagues

 
Debrett's: Ask the Expert
Activists Protest Israeli Attacks On Gaza In Chicago
Sometimes, just asking if you can change the subject is the best way forward (Source: Getty)

Q: When discussing certain topics with my colleagues I often find that I’m the odd person out. While I’ve tried to stay away from debating the usual hot topics such as politics or religion, the recent referendum and its consequences mean I’d have to play deaf, dumb and mute to dispel an office ambush. Should I speak up for myself, or keep the peace by staying quiet?

Recent events have brought the topic of politics into water cooler conversations around the country. In the wake of the EU referendum, many of us feel the need to express our surprise and to discuss the professional and personal ramifications it may have.

The vote will have a direct impact on many businesses, meaning that it’s a subject for discussion in the boardroom too, affecting strategy and HR, and even potentially leading to restructuring or relocation. The traditional advice, therefore – that politics is a conversation topic best avoided – hardly applies.

The political can become personal, bound as we are to interpret certain affiliations as reflecting a person’s economic and social background. You may also worry that being open about your minority opinion will adversely affect your working relationships, or even your career progression, leading others to judge you negatively.

Even if that’s not the case, many of us feel anxious in the wake of such a seismic event, and a detailed exposition of the potential consequences can exacerbate those feelings and make things seem worse than they actually are.

Read more: What is appropriate "netiquette" for the workplace?

But while it may be tempting to remain quiet simply to preserve the peace, if you feel personally attacked by your colleagues’ venting, whether about recent political events or other personal topics, it could start to affect your relationship with them.

In addition, the longer you wait before speaking your mind, the more likely it is that your colleagues will assume you agree with their views. They may then feel misled or embarrassed if they discover that in fact the opposite is true. It’s better to speak up at an early stage than to allow your irritation to fester, which may affect your equanimity when you do eventually decide to confront the subject.

If you do choose to involve yourself in discussions about taboo topics such as politics or religion at work, approach them with caution. Don’t assume others will share your views, and be wary of inadvertently offending someone who may, like you, have opted to stay quiet so far.

As with any other work scenario where you disagree with your colleagues or managers, try to keep any debate temperate rather than allowing the conversation to escalate into an argument. Ensure you’re well informed about your subject beforehand: not only will this make your case more convincing, but having facts at your fingertips might also prevent you from becoming too emotionally involved.

If the person to whom you are speaking becomes aggressive or rude, don’t be tempted to respond in kind, and try to keep your reasoning factual and neutral. If a conversation is becoming heated, it may be wisest to disengage altogether and suggest you revisit it at a later date.

A straightforward approach may prove to be the least contentious, so don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues directly not to discuss sensitive topics at work. Your request doesn’t have to be stern or censorious: a light-hearted ‘do you mind if we change the subject?’ may just do the trick.

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