Dealing with Controversial Topics at Work

Published On: March 11, 2019|Categories: Employees, Employers|
Handling Controversial Discussions at Work

While some fields are more diverse the others, there’s no doubt we’ve all worked with someone who was vastly different than us. Working with people from different backgrounds, nationalities and beliefs can be one of the best parts of working with others, but the things that make us unique can also bring up some challenging discussions.

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, dealing with controversial topics at work can be uncomfortable. With the sheer amount of time that people spend in workplaces, tough subjects are bound to come up at times, and knowing how to handle these discussions and when to end them can save you plenty of stress.

In this article we’ll offer a guide to approaching topics that are controversial, plus when it’s reasonable to end them and how to do it.

Your guide to approaching topics that are controversial

Navigating tricky subjects is easier when you respond in a professional manner and end the conversation when it’s necessary.

Understand the potential hot-button issues

Talking about politics, race, religion, money or personal matters are all important conversations, but they have their place and can become hurtful or disrespectful when boundaries aren’t respected. As an employer or employee, your best bet for managing tough subjects is to prepare yourself for when they inevitably occur.

Keep your emotions in check

Due to the personal nature of many topics that are controversial, it’s easy to react quickly and with strong emotions. It’s often during these conversations that your coworkers will form an opinion of how you respond, and maintaining a level head and making a mature response is both professional and noble.

Responding calmly doesn’t mean you’re submitting to another person’s perspective, either. It simply means you’re in control of your own words and behaviors.

Refrain from gossip

Realizing that your coworkers have opinions that diverge from your own is likely to change your opinion of them. While you are well within your rights to let it inform how close you relate to them and the extent of your association, let your judgments be your own and don’t try to sway others to one “side” or the other. A difference between two employees shouldn’t divide the company into two camps but should be handled on a personal level.

Be civil

A heated debate or one that escalates further than words can shift the energy in a company. Bringing up topics that are controversial can leave residual effects, leaving the employees in a company feeling un-edge, frustrated or even unsafe. During these conversations and in the hours, days and weeks that follow, it’s essential to maintain a positive attitude and mutual respect. After all, personal opinions are generally separate from the work that needs to get done.

Address things that need to be addressed

While it’s important to refrain from gossip and maintain respect for those whom you work with, there’s also much to be said for addressing behaviors or exchanges that are unsettling. Whether harsh words were spoken, snide comments were made during a meeting or you felt an email misrepresented the information, there’s a time to address those who may have caused hurt or mistrust.

Sometimes, these conversations can be handled one-on-one or in a small group. Sometimes, a third party or mediator is needed to settle any unrest.

Know when to end the conversation

Talking about topics that are controversial at work is bound to happen at some point during the span of a person’s career. Whether they happen frequently or once in a blue moon, it’s important to know how to handle them and when enough is enough. If you have found yourself in the midst of an unhealthy exchange, here are some hints that it’s time to walk away.

  • You feel unsafe or threatened
  • You are unable to share your perspective, despite multiple attempts
  • There is clear discrimination against someone who is or isn’t present
  • Comments are made with the sole purpose of being inflammatory
  • There is no openness to the conversation
  • The language and gestures being used indicate that the conversation will not be resolved

While many of these conversations happen in passing, over lunch or in the break room, if you’re in a situation where you feel stuck (like in a meeting or during a presentation), there are some tools you can use to divert the conversation or make a polite escape. Try out these tips when you’re stuck in a tough conversation.

  • Crack a neutral joke: making a joke that transitions the conversation toward a new topic in a light manner is nearly always appropriate and can remind people of their environment
  • Request to return to the subject at hand: share that you’re trying to keep the group on track and end time meeting in a timely manner by bringing up the next question or subject for discussion
  • Make a polite excuse: state that you’re not feeling well and stepping out to get a drink of water or find something to soothe your stomach
  • Express your discomfort: while it may feel awkward to tell the group you’re uncomfortable with the conversation if you look around and notice others are feeling uneasy with the topic they’re likely to chime in that it’s time to move on, too and be grateful you brought it up

When a conversation is no longer constructive and has the potential to be harmful, it’s best to involve someone higher up in your company.

Work with Mazzitti & Sullivan EAP

Whether or not your company is facing controversial conversations, your employees can benefit from the services offered through an EAP. Connect with Mazzitti & Sullivan to learn more.

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