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How To Navigate Touchy Subjects In The Workplace

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Aug. 19 2022, Published 8:00 a.m. ET

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It appears as if every topic right now is a touchy one—a spark that could ignite a fire. No one wants to be the face of controversy while having a brief chat, but it's hard to avoid topics that can cause offense, whether it be related to the pandemic (heard of mask shaming?), race, politics, climate change, or abortion rights.

The traditional advice has centered on avoiding certain topics at work, but that no longer serves us. Basecamp CEO Jason Fried discovered this when he banned discussing politics at work.” Given the aggressive rolling back of civil and human rights that has occurred in the past five years, this is a very passive and privileged position to take. It’s no surprise that Basecamp lost more than one-third of its employees as a result.

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The Cost of Not Knowing How To Navigate Touchy Subjects

I’m not advocating you talk partisan politics, but you mustn’t give up your freedom to dialogue about your civil and human rights. This means knowing the difference between the two and recognizing that politics does heavily impact your life—i.e, your right to vote, access healthcare, and how much you are paid. Fried said: “We don't take positions on things politically as a company unless they directly affect us as a company.” You have the same right.

If you can’t distinguish between the two, you will pay a price, remaining silent when you should be speaking up or getting bogged down in a needless debate that just leads to hurt feelings.

How To Navigate Sensitive Subjects At Work

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Instead of debating, engage in dialogue.

The former is about winning and oppositional, and the latter is about exploring each other’s points of view towards common understanding. Disengage immediately from any debate, reclaim your time, and protect your mental health.

Avoid thinking in terms of "I'm right. You’re wrong."

Recognize that what may seem less important to you might seem very important to someone else. Respect that there are differences in our lived experiences and be willing to explore them. You can allow for different perspectives in the conversation because life is filled with nuances and context.

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Ask good questions and speak up.

Yes, there will be differences. Go ahead and be frustrated or exasperated. Then get to work talking across them. Get clearer on what people mean by asking questions like, “Can you tell me more about …?”), or offer an alternative perspective by asking, “Have you ever considered...?”

You can offer your perspective (“I don’t see it the way you do. I see it as…”), seek to find common ground (“We don’t agree on X, but we agree on Y”), or set boundaries (“Please don't say that to me again.")

Know when to take the conversation offline.

It’s harder to have meaningful discussions digitally. Online platforms are built for debate, it’s not the best medium for nuanced dialogue. In our hybrid world, know when to take these conversations offline to an in-person or video chat. If you’re having them as a team, place someone in the facilitator role.

How Leaders Can Step Up

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Good leaders recognize that they cannot be passive and silent on issues that affect and impact their staff's human rights. Your team will hold differing views on an issue, but as Meghan Markle aptly said, “The only wrong thing to say is to say nothing.” Instead of banning talk on touchy issues, sponsor training to help employees develop the communication skills needed to hold conversations productively and respectfully.

Controversial topics are not going away. Your skillset in navigating them is key to advancing your career.

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By: Sonia Layne-Gartside

Sonia Layne-Gartside is an accomplished Global Consultant. She works with C-Suite and senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies as a strategic partner to lead Organization Development (OD), Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and HR strategy execution activities. Sonia holds advanced certification in change management from Prosci®, and she is certified as a Master Trainer, DEI Specialist, Case Writer, and Instructional Designer. Her undergraduate degree is in Business Management and her master’s degree is in Education. She is an International Speaker and author of the book Workplace Anxiety: How to Refuel and Re-Engage. In acknowledgement of her work and innovative practices, Sonia was recognized as the 2021 “Leader of the Year” by the Pittsburgh Human Resources Association’s (PHRA). She describes herself as a cheerleader for people and ideas.

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