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Relationships, Political Tension, and the Workplace

Seeing the words, “navigate political tensions” probably raises your blood pressure, or at least your stress level. Something more like, avoid at all costs, especially in the workplace, runs through your mind. 

In this blog I offer some easy methods to lean into tension as an opportunity rather than roadblock. Generative coaching methods give all of us a way to be inclusive and have our point of view with respect and dignity, in exactly the same way others who differ from us want that too. Enjoy a little Super Tuesday resourcing!

We all know that politics and work sometimes don't mix, and finding harmony is challenging when conflicting opinions arise. We also have a pun here. It's Super Tuesday in the US, meaning external political tensions are likely in workplace conversations. Then, the ever-present political tensions show up in any workplace on any subject we care passionately about. As the saying goes, "Where more than one is gathered," we've got politics. Tension in our relationships directly ties to our biological need for human connection, even when that generates uncomfortable tension.

What are "political tensions" at work, no matter why it's happening? Our words matter a lot, and clarifying our meaning provides an exit from the emotional intensity we fear. Conversation in the workplace is personal only if we make it so. Tensions arise because our differing viewpoints, ideologies, or personal agendas collide. Those collisions naturally create an emotionally charged atmosphere. As a result, conflicts can escalate emotions quickly if we are not paying attention. I mean, "we" here; me, you, and everyone else have responsibility for whether a conversation feels safe to challenge or something to keep in our silent thought bubble. These tensions stem from a deep desire for individuals to want to hear, acknowledge, and respect our perspective fully. The more we are unheard, unacknowledged, and disrespected, the more amplified the tension we feel and ultimately spew out to others. Thick of what happens when we shake a pop bottle filled with cola and then take the cap off. Yeah, that's releasing tension by spraying it on everyone else. 

So, what do we do when we find ourselves in political tension in the workplace? That's a great time to rev our EQ engine! We benefit from using our uniquely human ability to recognize and manage our own emotions while empathizing with others. Feeling judgmental becomes a superpower to notice as it bubbles up in us. In a microsecond, we can pause and then reset as simple as taking a deep breath and a slow blink of the eyes. In less than a second, these three physical acts shift us out of a reactive state. Then what? We still may have tension because we don't fully understand, appreciate, or respect what another has expressed. Using our curiosity is the stretch step. First, ask the question you cannot possibly know the answer to as that lives only inside the other person. For example, "What has shaped your perspective on this issue so I can learn and understand it better?" and "What creates the emotions that you express on this topic so I can appreciate how this idea/topic/issue impacts you and your balance/well-being/contribution?"

The answers help us regulate our emotions because our attention goes toward listening and hearing for meaning. Why? Because in the workplace, we share a common purpose, e.g., striving for success, serving clients, or creating something meaningful. At a minimum, we chose to be employed by the same organization based on a shared appreciation for the overarching mission and values. When we can sustain our focus on the shared goal, we value learning how different points of view reveal more options to choose from in fulfilling a vision or solving a problem. Leaning into tension as a source of transformation always builds bridges of understanding and collaboration. 

The process is similar to a good improv show with a slight twist. Improv actors pass the moments to speak by starting with "Yes" followed by "and" and then fill in an idea or word the audience throws out. In a conversation that has political tension, we want to follow the "and" with "curiosity." For example, if someone says that the US immigration policy is all so-and-so's fault, we could say, "Yes, our US immigration policy is not working for anyone, and what informs your thinking that so-and-so is singularly responsible for that?" Our curiosity signals respect, genuine interest to learn, and an invitation to dialogue. We all seek to belong, and the quickest way to generate that feeling, replacing the sense of tension, arises from giving respect to get respect.

You likely see that listening becomes the next invaluable skill in this process. While it's sometimes challenging to listen when you feel tension from disagreement, remember it takes just a second to break the spell; pause, take a breath, and slowly close and open your eyes. Then, remember that you want to truly hear the meaning of what another person expresses beyond just listening to the words. When we identify as "experts," we'll often default to listening to defend a position. All that does is amplify each other's position rather than incorporate each viewpoint to make something new emerge. Generating something new is ultimately the goal if we are to fulfill a vision or solve a thorny problem. If, instead, we adopt a mindset to receive input from another person intending to have our perspective evolve versus formulating our response, something new does occur. Regardless of the stakes, this mindset shift works and fuels learning, connection, partnering, and productive conversations. Remember our purpose: lean into the tension for learning, fresh imagination, and to stimulate creativity so we all focus on fulfilling our shared purpose.

Here are three ways to remember how to invite change with political tension. Instead of seeing political tensions as roadblocks or conflicts to avoid, see them as opportunities:

Janet M. Harvey, MCC

Experienced with individuals at the Board of Directors, “C” Chair, Executive and Senior Management levels, Janet assists executives in adopting effective habits of perception and behavior to lead and accelerate corporate strategies. Typical engagements address executive development in the following areas: articulate and inspire through clarity of vision, enable respectful challenge, debate and catalyze synergy for strategic business choices, risk/reward critical thinking about investments and shareholder value, plan leader succession and architect sustainable cultural/strategic change.
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