AWC-SB March Event: Communicating Effectively in a Polarized Environment

By: Lilly Erickson, AWC-SB Intern

Today’s recent political environment has generated feelings of uneasiness among many Americas. Regardless of our political affiliation, many of us feel uncertain about when to speak up to defend our beliefs, and how to communicate effectively to avoid offending others.

In a panel discussion held on Wednesday, March 1, a diverse group of panelists shared their insights on how to effectively communicate, without letting politics sabotage the conversation. Led by Carolyn Jabs, AWC-SB president-elect, AWC-SB welcomed panelists Judy Guillermo Newton, Senior Vice‐President and Director of Organizational Development and Human Resources at Montecito Bank & Trust, Kelly Scott, Chief Deputy DA at Santa Barbara District Attorney, and Anna Everett, Professor of Film, Television and New Media Studies at UCSB.

Changed political climate

“Many people who’d never talked about politics now want to talk about politics, and with it comes a lot of personalization—the words are harsher,” Newton said.

Since the most recent presidential election, people have seen a dramatic increases in political conversations at work. This upsurge in opinions lends itself to the potential to offend others. The panelists remarked on the difficult task of continuing to remain nonpartisan with co-workers as a team, despite the emotional unrest that appears ever-present.

Knowing when to speak up

“It’s important to weigh what battles you’re going to take,” Newton said.

Deciding when and if you should make yourself heard is not an easy task. Sometimes an issue feels so important to your own personal morals that you feel obligated to speak up. However, it’s crucial to keep in mind the costs associated.If losing your job, family, or friends is more important to you, you may want to remain silent on the subject.

Three ways to bring contentious talk into a more civil space

  1. Active Listening: “Silence is a pause that can minimize a charged environment,” Everett said. By taking time to listen to others, you show respect for their opinion, even if their views are different from your own. Everett suggested to first remain silent while listening to the other person’s beliefs, then repeat back what they said in order to make sure you heard them correctly.
  2. Self-awareness: “It’s crucial for us to be aware of what the signals are in our own bodies that make us behave in ways that might be uncivil,” Newton said. Stay aware of the way you respond to a situation, particularly if it puts you on-edge. This enables you to step back, take a moment to compose yourself, and react in a manner that facilitates constructive discussion.
  3. Working Towards a Common Goal: “When there are divisive political discussions, I try to make everyone find what the common goal is,” Scott said. Working towards a common goal allows team members to learn from one another and focus on the task at hand, despite their different political views.

As all three of the panelists touched upon, the key to communicating effectively in a polarized environment is taking time to listen before responding. Seeing the other’s perspective, despite their political differences, enables compassion and understanding. By following this advice, we can work with others as a team and come to mutually beneficial solutions.

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