If everyone made a list of the top five topics to avoid discussing in the workplace, I’d imagine politics would make most people’s lists.

According to new research by VitalSmarts, it’s never been more risky to talk about politics at work as 1 in 3 respondents report having been attacked, insulted or called names because of their political views, and 1 in 4 say they’ve had a political discussion damage a relationship.

The study focuses on discussions regarding the 2016 U.S presidential race and the polarised opinions of many Americans, but with elections taking place across the UK today and the EU referendum taking place on Thursday 23rd June, the findings and advice for handling these conversations more effectively seemed particularly pertinent.

The EU debate, in particular, has divided opinion among politicians, economists, colleagues and families across the UK. Why does discussing politics evoke such a volatile emotional response?

The enormous ramifications of a potential EU exit could shape our lives for many generations, therefore the stakes are incredibly high and people are heavily emotionally invested in the outcome. Alternatively, when the candidates themselves resort to attacks, insults and name calling, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that our behaviour mirrors theirs; we become two sides locked in battle.

Crucially, these discussions descend into arguments because we try to ‘win’ the disagreement and belittle the other viewpoints, rather than hold a conversation seeking mutual purpose and greater understanding of the other person’s perspective; or even the overall subject being discussed. It’s much safer and easier to seek the opinions of those who match are own and intensify our beliefs.

When the authors of the study, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, asked respondents to describe people with an opposing political view, the top adjectives were: angry, uneducated, ignorant, uninformed, racist, narrow and blind. It’s no wonder that when these discussions create such strong emotions, 61% of people will try to avoid political discussions at all costs.

 “Consider that these are the words people used to describe another human being,” Grenny said. “It’s appalling to see the kind of ugly view we hold of others who simply have a different opinion and outlook on the world than we do. With this kind of tainted perspective, it’s no wonder we come into a politically oriented conversation itching for a fight.”

So, is it possible to discuss politics in a way that is safe for opposing opinions to be shared? Grenny and Maxfield found that respondents that reported holding political conversations in a civilised manner described their colleagues with the following adjectives: listened, open, respect, think and ask.

It’s important to remember that we don’t have to agree to be aligned. Healthy dialogue around sensitive issues, such as politics, can help us develop better relationships with colleagues who feel safe to discuss other difficult subjects with us, perhaps around performance, behaviour, projects or personal wellbeing.

Here are four tips for talking about difficult subjects with colleagues – even if you completely disagree with their opinion:

  1. Look for areas of agreement. Let the other person know you share common goals, even if your preferred tactics for achieving them differ.
  2. Avoid personal attacks. While you don’t have to agree with the other person’s view, you can still acknowledge that his or her view is valid, rather than “idiotic” or “evil.”
  3. Focus on facts and be tentative. Consider the source of your facts, and ask the other person to do the same. Ask two questions: Could the facts be biased? Could they be interpreted differently?
  4. Look for signs of disagreement. If the other person grows quiet or starts to become defensive, reinforce your respect for them and remind them of the broader purpose you both share.

Further information about the latest VitalSmarts study, can be found here.

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