How To Navigate Controversial Topics In The Workplace

Any conversation has the potential to turn controversial at the workplace, but there are some topics that we know are likely to lead to controversy and disagreement: politics, religion, personal relationships, even family problems. But these discussions happen in any workplace where people come together, no matter what policies say.

To respect both the rights of those who wish to express an opinion and the rights of those who may feel uncomfortable or troubled by that opinion, you need to know how you and your team can best navigate controversial topics. Here are some tips:

Set the tone from the top. Make sure managers and senior staff respect the views of others and know how to navigate conflict. Help them remember that leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure your influence is felt even when you’re not around.

Learn to listen respectfully. If you do more listening than talking, you’ll have fewer opportunities to say something you’ll regret or get yourself in trouble. Unless you’re in a situation where a legitimate wrong or injustice is taking place, if you find yourself wanting to say something but asking yourself whether it’s appropriate, you should probably keep it to yourself.

Be willing to engage and be vulnerable. If you aren’t sure what to say in a particular situation, simply say so. When you speak your truth and show vulnerability, you encourage others to do so as well. Even when words fail, hearts understand each other when communication is honest.

Seek to understand. No matter how open-minded we try to be, we all view the world through the lens of our own experiences. The key is to look beyond what we think, what we know and what we have experienced, and try to understand things from another’s point of view. Even the effort to empathize makes us more fully human.

Redirect the heat. If someone is spewing offensive commentary or hate speech, redirect the conversation. Be low-key but firm about changing the topic. Remind people that even in disagreement everyone needs to treat others with respect.

Become familiar with the cues. Learn to recognize verbal and nonverbal cues indicating that someone may be feeling offended by something that was said or done. Whatever the cause, the dialogue begins with the knowledge that something is wrong.

If you hear something, say something. Rather than making assumptions or leaping to conclusions about a person’s character, sometimes it’s better to be up front and frank with someone who’s behaving or speaking offensively. This means approaching the person respectfully with a chance to talk things through. Don’t accuse but explain, and don’t yell but express. Tell them why you’re upset, explain and express yourself. If you do this with confidence it will often be effective in neutralizing a stressful situation.

Manage your emotions. When someone says or does something that leaves you feeling upset, angry, or frustrated, be prepared with techniques to help you manage your emotions. Wait to discuss the incident until you are composed and calm, when you’re feeling less frustrated and have more patience.

Own your mistakes. If you’re the one making people uncomfortable—even unintentionally—own up to it, take responsibility, apologize, and change the subject. Remember, you’re not the only one whose opinions and feelings matter. Sometimes feelings are hurt when conversations get out of hand, but it’s up to us to own our own mistakes and take full responsibility for them—and that doesn’t mean a “sorry if you were offended” nonapology.

Keep the tone professional and mutually respectful. It’s important to keep the workplace professional at all times. That means making sure everyone adheres to a decorum that doesn’t allow for hateful speech, shouting matches or unsolicited strong opinions.

Lead from within: Controversial communications are not easy to navigate. It’s the shared responsibility of everyone partaking to keep things civil and considerate.


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The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness

After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR,, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

  1. Robert Day

    24. Aug, 2018

    You missed one: Know when someone has crossed a line. And what follows from that: If someone crosses that line, do not deploy all your sanctions indiscriminately.

    Organisations and companies may have rules on certain types of speech. Other organisations may have a set of values that they expect colleagues to observe, even if they aren’t contractual. It’s important that people know the difference between those things and when those lines are crossed; when merely “redirecting” a conversation isn’t enough.

    But it’s also important to know what sanctions the organisation has and expects to enforce. It’s perhaps more important to know how to enforce those sanctions and what stages a manager has to go through both before invoking a sanction and after it is invoked. I have seen instances where a first-line manager was told of something that a colleague considered was inappropriate, in the expectation that they would investigate, establish facts and perhaps have a corrective word with an individual, only to find that the manager immediately invoked severe sanctions that eventually lost someone their job – a decision that was subject to legal challenge and which no-one emerged from as a winner.

    It’s knowing the difference between these things and knowing when to direct and steer, and when to enforce, that makes management an art rather than a science.

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    • lollydaskal

      24. Aug, 2018

      Thank you Robert for your thoughtful insight. It is true, when someone has crossed the line, it must be discussed and dealt with and as you say,… knowing the difference between these things and knowing when to direct and steer, and when to enforce, that makes management an art rather than a science. < So well said. Thank you. Lolly

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