It seems there’s a big elephant in nearly every room these days. We live in strange times, when even close family members are divided over certain issues. When good friends might not want to bring up certain subjects.
While this can be painful in our personal lives, it can be downright dangerous in the workplace. You never know when a seemingly innocuous comment will ignite a co-worker’s—or superior’s, or client’s—unconscious bias, and lead us to places no one wants to go.
Naturally, it’s best to avoid bringing up these subjects in the workplace. But what if someone else brings it up? Or worse, what if you’re asked a direct question by someone you can’t just easily dismiss?
Those are tricky situations. However, there are strategies you can use to gracefully, even elegantly, defuse a situation that could easily get out of hand. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Change the subject without looking like you’re changing the subject. This is one of my favorites. Of course you’d just like to say, “How about them [insert local football team here],” but that’s not always practical. Instead, use a kernel of the imminent conversation to bring the subject around to something that’s more comfortable for everyone. Something like:
Potential conversation destroyer: “Anyone who voted for that loser is basically a traitor. Did you vote for [him/her]?”
You: “You know, speaking of treason, I went to see Hamilton the other night, and besides being a FANTASTIC musical, I learned a lot about the birth of the country and our founding fathers. Anyone else see it?”
If you’re in a group, hopefully you’ll gain an ally with this who will come to the rescue (even if they haven’t seen the show), and now you’ll be talking about something completely different.
2. Be politely direct. “You know, I’ve always had a personal rule to never discuss politics or religion at work. Is that all right with you?”
This might not always work, but you’re making it clear where you stand and drawing a boundary that the other person must now consciously choose to cross.
3. Invent a distraction. In this case, your smartphone might be your best friend. If your phone is in your pocket, make believe its vibrating, pull it out, and say, “Excuse me, I need to take this, my [brother/aunt/dog] is in the hospital and we’re waiting for word.” Then leave the room to have your make-believe conversation.
Yes, it might not be the most elegant solution, but desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. When you return, make sure you have a topic of conversation ready that you can immediately launch into, so as to avoid the previous topic.
These are good places to start, but I’m sure you can think of even better ways to defuse a potentially explosive situation. In fact, this might be a good exercise for a team-building situation: “How would you avoid a direct question about religion or politics?” Sounds like a good brainstorm subject to me!