Three widely acknowledged conversational no-fly zones at business or social gatherings are religion, politics and sex. To venture into any of these potentially volatile spaces is to risk triggering a difference in opinion or, worse, an argument with those you are attempting to build a new business relationship with.
With a Canadian federal election in the air, most of us are following the campaigns of four candidates with different agendas, personal styles and, of course, supporters. According to a recent Ipsos poll, just three percentage points separate Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair. It's hard to resist delving into a conversation with a business client or prospect about the candidates, your views on them and the outcome, whether face-to-face or in an innocent tweet. Based on my experience of wading into murky and often treacherous political discussion waters, I suggest you stay ashore and avoid the conversation altogether.
It's not always easy to duck an innocent question ("So, who's going to win?") that's meant only to launch a conversation, not trigger a heated debate. Regardless, make your conversation a politics-free zone and you will be able to focus your conversational partner on things that will move the relationship forward, not commandeer it.
Here are eight reasons for avoiding a political conversation with business colleagues and prospects:
- Your conversational partner may be extremely well-versed in election topics. They might have data at their disposal that will make your head spin and leave you scrambling to defend even the most innocent observation. Also, you never know with whom you are speaking. For example, some years ago I was in a political conversation with a business colleague and as a communications professional, offered what I thought was an interesting fact about spending policies on election advertising in Canada. She politely corrected me and mentioned that she was a former campaign manager for a prominent local candidate and wrote her thesis on the Canada Elections Act at university.
- You may be standing in a group of people and cite information from what you believe is a credible source only to be corrected by the more knowledgeable person. You lose credibility instantly, which is not the way to build trust with a client or person with whom you wish to do business.
- When you enter into a conversation about candidates, you may be facing someone who has their heart set on naming their first-born Stephen, Tom, Justin, or Elizabeth. Unless you agree with everything the person says about their hero, (which does not make you a conversational partner), you run the risk of turning your relationship with them from collaborative to competitive.
- If you are dragged into a political discussion and asked whom you are supporting, you need to say something. I suggest you offer a very brief, high-level personal synopsis of how each leader is perceived by the media. Consider saying, "They have varying views and I am not completely committed to a particular candidate at this point." Then name one platform plank for each candidate and leave it at that. Stating facts versus opinions saves you the pain of a debate with a client while demonstrating that you are a pragmatic participant in the conversation and election process.
- Avoid offering a dismissive response when the conversational red flag is waved in front of you. Off-the-cuff comments such as "I have no interest" or "They're all the same and never keep their promises" are ungracious, bitter and will alienate you from others.
- Many people have long-standing allegiances to political parties their families have supported for generations. They may even be related to a candidate. Should you inadvertently slight a party leader or their party, you are really challenging your conversational partner's belief system and the values they may hold dear. And when you introduce a potentially controversial topic such as the speed of the ascent of women to power in corporate Canada, you risk initiating a hailstorm.
- Emotions can run high at social events when politics enter the conversational ring. You may find yourself stuck with a fervent and over-refreshed supporter with a point to make. He or she won't stop talking until you basically agree to join the party or promise to support the candidate. I have found the best exit strategy is to politely excuse yourself from the conversation feigning hunger, thirst, or having to attend a political rally for your chosen political party.
- When you introduce politics in a conversation with a prospect or client, you run the admittedly small risk of being encouraged to make a donation to their party of choice. Some people succumb to overly enthusiastic or controlling individuals to cement the relationship and enforce shared values -- which are really theirs. This situation is really a manifestation of a power issue lurking in the relationship and does not augur well for a new business relationship based on mutual respect.
We're ramping up to a hotly contested and deeply analyzed campaign on October 19. In the meantime, enjoy the mounting media coverage and twists and turns while staying cool and keeping your political opinions to yourself. However, once you enter the voting booth, you can let your opinions go without fear of offending anyone.
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