Navigating tricky political conversations

Respect and good listening can steer business travellers safely through fraught discussions.
Navigating tricky political conversations

Many people have an interest in — and sometimes strong opinions about — politics and policy in countries other than their own. Those who travel for business are likely to find themselves in meetings, at conferences, attending dinners, and in many other situations where the sensitive matter of political viewpoint might enter the conversation.

Such conversations are tricky because opinions are likely to be split amongst the people in the room, meaning you're offending someone no matter which way you lean. So how does a professional business person enter into a political conversation and make it out the other side unscathed? Begin by remaining positive and not directly answering political questions, said Danny Armstrong, managing partner of international accounting and advisory firm ShineWing Australia.

In a public situation, Armstrong said he uses his media training and simply says he'd prefer to focus on the work he is doing for his clients. "I talk about the business-related statistics and all of the positive things that are going on," he said.

Anna Musson, director and founder of Australian business The Good Manners Company, said Armstrong's method of bridging from a dangerous topic to a safer one is excellent. A simple response such as, "It's funny you should mention that, because it reminds me that I wanted to get your opinion on X," is also a good way around a prickly topic. Rather than shutting down the other person, it is an invitation for them to speak further, but on a different topic.

Rather than aggressively disagreeing, Musson said it is easier and more socially acceptable to shift the discussion. "Try something as simple as, 'That raises an interesting question of leadership. What do you think people really desire in a leader?'" she suggested. "And if all else fails and you're in a group setting, a simple 'excuse me' before you walk away conveys no rudeness or attempt to avoid a question, merely that nature or hosting duties call."

Focus on listening, not talking

It's imperative to speak with great care when discussing politics, religion, or love lives, said Daniel Post Senning, etiquette author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, an American institution in the field of etiquette. While religion and romance are always sensitive topics, politics as a conversation focus is a pendulum that swings from relatively safe to terribly treacherous, and right now it is the latter.

"Politics is not the most intimate nor the most personal thing we can discuss," he said. "There are things about family, finances, and personal health that people hold even more closely and take even more care with. At the same time, people have very different and strongly held opinions and perspectives on politics."

As a result, Post Senning said it's important to have in mind a strategy or framework for dealing with such a conversation when it comes up. In a world that is smaller thanks to technology but still highly diverse and complex, a fluency in social expectations and a willingness to understand the points of view of others is as vital as a passport and credit card.

Begin by consciously defaulting to a higher level of formality and expectation of yourself, Post Senning recommended. What does this mean in practice? It's a lot more about listening than it is about offering your own opinion.

"If there's an opinion or question arising in your mind, proceed with a little more caution than you usually might," he said. "Simply ask, and then listen. That's a great way to have any conversation that is potentially controversial or difficult. One of the prices of admission for such conversations is a willingness to hear people out, to listen to people who have different opinions to yours.

"That means really listen. You're not just listening while you wait for your turn to talk, but listen in an active and engaged way, where you're also looking for cues on what they're comfortable with, how they'd like to proceed, or even whether they're comfortable to proceed."

Be interested and make sure you have some familiarity with the likely situations and points of view of locals. Wherever you travel, it's very easy with just a small investment of time and effort to gain a basic understanding of the issues and challenges in a specific geographic area.

"Do a little work ahead of time," Post Senning recommended. "Have a creative curiosity about the world. Cultivate that curiosity and use it to your advantage. Be interested, because it will make you more interesting; it will make you a better guest, and it'll probably help you get more out of your experience in a place."

Practical tips for conversation navigation

If you're lost for a question to ask in order to sensitively avoid offering an opinion, Post Senning said to consider repeating what you have just heard, but in the form of a question:

  • "Am I hearing you correctly? Did you just say ..."
  • "Could you clarify what you're saying so I can better understand your point of view?"
  • "That's a very interesting point of view. Could you expand on that for me?"

"A follow-up question is great," he said. "It's one of my favourite tips to people. It shows that you're engaged in the conversation and that you are actively listening. It removes the obligation for you to express an opinion, and it gives you time to consider what it is that you might say next."

If you do hear something that is against your beliefs, or that you consider offensive, it is perfectly acceptable to "deny a social smile", Post Senning said.

"If somebody is making an inappropriate joke or venturing into offensive territory, an open withholding of affirmation for that person's statement, through the denial of desired reaction such as a laugh, a smile, or a nod, is a very powerful thing and is perfectly acceptable. Don't underestimate your power to turn away a comment that's difficult or awkward by simply not participating."

Treska Roden, a business etiquette coach from Australian business Corporate Protocol International, said a participant in a political conversation must be aware of the way they are phrasing their comments. For example:

  • "You're wrong about that" is aggressive and abrasive.
  • "Obviously we disagree on this, but I can see your point of view" is friendlier and more professional, as is, "I don't think I agree with you on that, but I see where you're coming from."
  • "Let's agree to disagree, but can I ask your opinion on ..." is a good way to end a potentially tricky discussion and indicate that you'd like to redirect to another topic.

The final statement above, Roden said, also works well in a group situation when you sense the conversation could be moving into dangerous territory. "Just say, 'Sorry to interrupt. It's wonderful to hear so many different opinions. On another topic, could I ask what you think of ...'," she said.

Roden recommended going into every conversation armed with a "safe list" of topics. She said such a list might include the weather, sports, family, work, news, movies, travel, music, educational courses, organisations, social clubs and charities, books, restaurants, food, pets, and hobbies. There is a lot to discuss that is not politics.

"Within these topic areas you still need to be careful," she warned. "If you're discussing a hobby and others are glazing over, it's time to change direction. If you're discussing news, steer clear of anything political or connected with religion, etc."

Never fight fire with fire

It's vital that you never take professional conversations personally or return fire, which turns a conversation into an argument, Post Senning said.

"Sometimes it can be very easy to [elevate] the importance of the topic that you're discussing, compared to the importance of the relationship you're developing," he said. "Are you really going to make an argument that changes their point of view on a topic about which they're already passionate?

"It's more likely that what you're involved in is a goodwill discourse intended to show that you are a person of intelligence who has respect and consideration for the other person, even if they might have a different opinion. A good conversation is a wonderful, powerful thing, so don't ruin it with a political argument."

Chris Sheedy is a freelance writer based in Australia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, an FM magazine associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.