An ignited conversation on politics in the workplace and suddenly you realize that in the heat of the moment, you crossed a line. You said something which you shouldn’t have. And now you begin to regret it. All because you and your Boss are not on the same page when it comes to the President of your country. There is a difference of opinion, strong opinions. Herein, you could not afford to miss the pink elephant in the room. The pink elephant arrives in the room when you least expect it. Sooner or later in your career.
Meet the Pink Elephant in the Room
Why do you think there’s an unspoken understanding in the workplace regarding race, politics, religion? An understanding of not mentioning these while at work. A conversation on these topics can go off-limits, cause tension and make people really uncomfortable. This is the Pink Elephant in the room.
When you are working with people for quite some time and suddenly you get to know that one of your co-workers supports a political leader because the politician loves oppression, while you have been a champion of freedom all your life. This can completely change your relationship with that colleague. You might develop a sentiment of resentment for that colleague. But is the right way to address this situation? Can you go on resenting your colleagues just because you think and feel differently about certain issues?
In her book ‘You Can’t Talk About That at Work! How to Talk about Race, Religion, Politics, and other Polarizing Topics,’ Mary-Frances Winters says, “Whether we like it or not, or are prepared for it or not, this adage no longer applies. People are talking about these issues, or at minimum, thinking about them, and it impacts productivity, engagement, and employees’ sense of safety and wellbeing. Considering we have been taught not to talk about polarizing topics, especially at work, we may not know how to do it very well. Thus, our attempts may lead to counterproductive, divisive dialogue. And as our workplaces become more diverse, these conversations are ever more complicated.”
The question no more remains whether we should discuss polarizing topics at work. Now the question arises – how do we encourage effective conversations around these issues at the workplace? How do we engage in a difficult dialogue?
How do you address the Pink Elephant in the room?
Recognition and Realization
Living in ignorance and oblivion is not a choice we have today. Particularly, when the world around us is moving so fast and for the rapid evolution in the social climate. All the events that take place in our society – terrorism, trade wars, religious conflict, elections, protests for equality, empowerment, inclusion, and so on – it all affects us, individually or in groups. The moment we enter our workplaces, we arrive with our own views, biases, and feelings. It is important to recognize that a diverse workplace includes different racial or ethnic groups, religions, sexual orientation and so on. Consequently, you need to pay attention to the differences, if you want to engage in quality conversations with your co-workers. Realize that we all think differently and it is okay to voice our opinions. At the same time, it is not okay to despise others for what they think or believe in.
Welcome Different Worldviews
While interacting with your colleagues on difficult or polarizing topics, you must create room for a meaningful dialogue. It is often observed that when people are too passionate about an issue, they tend to talk about it at length. There is no problem here. The problem arises when you are not letting the other person put across his/her points. In this case, you are suppressing an alternate voice. The best case in point here is that of social media. Take any trending topic for instance, within no time, it turns into a heated argument. We observe very less tolerance for differences. A visible online divide comes into the picture. And then begins a trail of following, unfollowing, and negative comments. If you are only listening to people who think and talk like you, there’s no space for a different perspective. And do you think it is a conducive environment for growth? When at your workplace, listen patiently to what your colleagues have to say, whether you agree or disagree. A one-sided conversation hardly leads anywhere.
Practice the 4 Es
In her book, Mary-Frances Winters talks about practicing the 4 Es – exposure, experience, education, and empathy to prepare for difficult conversations. Janice Gassams, the founder of BWG Business Solutions – a firm designed to help businesses become more inclusive, explains these Es wonderfully well.
Exposure is recognizing the different kinds of people you associate with. Researchers explain the “similar-to-me” bias as a situation in which we tend to incline towards others who are like us. After analyzing our exposure or lack of exposure to a particular group, we can recognize the limitations of our understanding of others.
Experience is interacting with people who are unlike you and come from different backgrounds. Researchers talk about the “contact hypothesis” which implies that increased exposure to a particular group can reduce our bias or prejudices towards this group.
Education is about being well informed on diversity and inclusion through workplace training, university courses, documentaries and books. These tools are instrumental in increasing knowledge and understanding of different groups.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person. This helps enhance mutual understanding and respect, despite all the differences.
Why engage with the Pink Elephant in the room?
Are you are thinking why talk about polarizing topics at all in the workplace, if they can lead to conflict and tension and make everyone comfortable? You can comfortably carry on with your profession, feel good about your job, and get paid. Your job role does not involve talking about social issues – race, religion, or politics. Probably, you are not wrong in thinking so. This has been the prevailing sentiment for a very long time. But with the organizations becoming more and more diverse and inclusive, you can not really isolate yourself from these debates. And most importantly, we do not live in silos. Whatever happens around us, affects us – emotionally and psychologically. This is perhaps the crucial link in engaging with the pink elephant in the room.
The conversations and discussions around these topics are already happening around you. What is required now is to make these conversations healthier, more productive, inclusive and wholesome, for everyone who engages with the pink elephant in the room.
(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Energy Dais.)