With tensions high around rising antisemitism and conflict in the middle east, friends of all kinds can find themselves in the most awkward situations for discussion. But friendships that are rooted in the workplace can have extra complexity.
This is because most adults live in political and religious bubbles based on geography, family and social media. Our workplaces, therefore, are the last, true bastions of heterogeneity in our lives. This is especially true for big and hybrid employers that bring people together from disparate backgrounds and locations.
Work friendships therefore require a different set of relating skills, and this is more true than ever when a major external event happens. When the company itself is in conflict, employees may be able to either band together in unity or walk out in solidarity. But if the external issue is unrelated to work yet top of mind, it’s going to be very difficult for companies and the work friends inside of them to navigate it.
n.b. Companies can and should do more to foster friendships at work. I’m working extensively on this topic right now and would love to hear from you about it. Feel free to reply here as well!
Of course you’re going to want to talk to your close work friends about things happening in the news. As a lifelong startup founder, I’ve been in leadership roles at different startups during major shocks like 9/11 and Trump’s 2016 election win. In each case, we had to go into the office and continue our work, but it was impossible to ignore the realities happening outside. There was a lot of surprise and dismay, and discussions happened with a diversity of opinions.
Current events might be difficult with all kinds of friends, but in a workplace it’s even more complex. For example, rifts are costly and may get the company involved, while safeguards against workplace discomfort can easily become weaponized in conflict. Moreover, you may not know your work friend’s political orientation, or even how they might be personally affected.
But you’re close to this person and you’re having feelings about the situation. Plus, the company told you to “bring your whole person” to work, and you want/need to talk about things. Maybe they want to chat too?
Here are 3 ways to approach tough conversations with your close friends at work.
Option 1: Don’t.
It sounds ludicrous to suggest that you don’t discuss tough political issues with work friends. After all, how close can your friendship be if you don’t get into the meaty things that are unrelated to work, right? But there’s the rub: if you don’t already know your friend’s leaning on this issue, have you put in the effort to get to know them? And if you know where they stand, you’re either spoiling for a fight or looking for affirmation, so why are you even reading this essay? But also, just remember that not all issues need to be discussed with all friends. Not everyone is political, and not all friendships require 100% issue coverage. Yes, you ought to feel comfortable talking about whatever you want, but does that mean you should still do it? You can read more about EQ here to find an answer to this question, but I think you already know the right one.
Option 2: Ask
It’s perfectly ok to ask someone whether or not they want to talk about something. It’s a weird construct because — again — with super close friends and family we’re not accustomed to that kind of consent-based conversation structure. But it can be really helpful when approaching tough topics. A good analogue is when someone mentions something that might be personal or uncomfortable in passing, e.g. “When my dad had cancer…” and you ask them if it’s ok to talk more about that. You probably wouldn’t probe more on that topic without consent, and I suggest you use the same approach here for maximum effect.
Option 3: Emotion v Substance
This is the AP version of this strategy, but you can leverage your EQ to engage with friends on tough topics around feelings rather than facts. For example, you can say “I want to talk about how XX makes me feel,” rather than “I want to talk about XX.” You can even be specific that you don’t want to talk about opinions or argue realities, but rather that you just want to express feelings and stay in that realm. This can be difficult because often people want to then rationalize feelings, but if you can work disciplined boundaries, you can get what you need (emotional support) instead of what you probably should be avoiding (a debate about facts or outcomes).
Think of this like a conflict with your partner where you don’t want to “be right”, you just want to be heard. Yes ,it’s unlikely, but just go with it. You might say things like “when you did that it made me feel x.” You can use a similar approach here, but by focusing on how the events make you feel, and by setting guardrails around topics.
Extra Credit: Intention & Commitment
Before engaging with others on topics you feel are sensitive or risky, you need to seriously ask yourself why you want to do this, what your intent in the conversation is and what you’re committed to. For example, do you want to provoke or get support? Are you committed to still being this person’s friend even if you disagree or are you looking for reasons to unfriend them? Where would you like to be after this conversation? How do you avoid using inflammatory or accusatory language? All of these questions should be asked before you decide to engage with someone on a tough topic.
Regardless of how or even whether you engage with others, just remember that you don’t know where everyone is coming from. Also, others may have different belief or value systems that make tough conversations more difficult if they are fact or friction based. Stick to areas of shared interest and compromise, and remember that you don’t need every friend to be part of every aspect of your life or to share all your values. This is especially true at work, where you’ve got a rare chance for more open and different experience and inputs.
Listening is valuable for its own sake. And work friendships, doubly so.