The delicate art of discussing religion, politics or gender in the workplace

There are few topics that remain as complex as they are sensitive, especially with co-workers. The big three are religion, politics and gender. These subjects hold profound importance in our lives and are at the core of our identities, thus holding the power to stir up deep emotions. Avoiding or hiding these parts of our identities in the office can leave us feeling false or like imposters at work. How do we balance sharing our true selves at work, with a need to respect our co-workers and, of course, steer clear of workplace policy violations? Here's a few tips for navigating delicate subjects:

Focus on similarity first: 

Yes, we are all unique, but in the wise words of Maya Angelou, "We're more alike than we are unalike." Respect for diverse perspectives, beliefs and backgrounds is crucial, but so is remembering that we're all human. We have families, interests and full lives outside of work. Find out what you have in common with co-workers; perhaps a favorite restaurant, vacation spot or hobby, then build on that.

Listen rather than speak:

When discussing a sensitive topic, or if someone casually drops a personal share that you weren't expecting, remember you have two ears but only one mouth. Prioritize listening over speaking; it's not always necessary to respond. Phrases such as, "Thanks for sharing that," or "I understand where you're coming from," can help build common ground. Listening to truly understand someone's experience or perspective (rather than listening only to react or respond) takes practice and is worth the effort. Active listening fosters an environment where people feel heard and valued.

Choose the right timing and setting: 

If a sensitive discussion is necessary, then it deserves the right time and location. If a conversation takes an awkward or unexpected turn, it's OK to say, "I can tell this topic is important, but now isn't the right time or place. I want to give this conversation its due. Can we start again later when we'll both be able to focus?" If you don't want to go there when someone shares something personal, it's also OK to simply say, "Thanks so much for sharing that with me," then politely change the subject or get back to work. Again, it's not always necessary to respond.

Exercise discretion: 

While open dialogue, listening and human connection are encouraged, exercising discretion is equally important. It's not OK to engage in heated debates that turn into arguments or let a tense conversation cross the line of a workplace-policy violation. Expressing speech that could be perceived as harassment or hate speech (whether in person or on social media) will land you in violation of your company policies.

Set boundaries: 

If a conversation becomes uncomfortable or contentious, or if the steps above don't get the conversation redirected, gracefully move toward more common ground. It might be appropriate to say, "I can tell we are both uncomfortable talking about this in the office," or "I feel a little differently about that," followed by, "I respect you as a person and our relationship is important to me, but would you mind if we change the subject?"

Know your policies:

What's the culture regarding sensitive or personal dialogue in your workplace? Some workplaces encourage open discussions, while others prefer to keep conversations less personal. It's essential to understand your organization's policies. Many workplaces have anti-harassment policies that outline prohibited activity and consequences. Many organizations also have equal employment and diversity policies intended to foster fair and equitable treatment, as well as prevent harassment or discrimination.

Discussions about personal topics can be respectful, inclusive and contribute positively to the work environment. When approached thoughtfully, such conversations can broaden our perspectives, foster empathy and create deeper relationships built on trust and mutual respect. Embracing diversity while navigating sensitive conversations can enrich the workplace culture and help us build stronger human connections.

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