This week has been rife with gun violence, from the shootings of civilians Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile to the gunning down of five police officers in Dallas on Thursday night.
Amid these events, millions of Americans have headed to work with a flurry of complicated emotions and opinions—a situation compounded by the fact that this week’s tragedies are bound up with the complex issue of race.
In this environment, it’s inevitable that gun violence will come up as a conversation topic among coworkers—and almost as inevitable that it will cause widespread discomfort. Some of us find it difficult to talk about hot-button issues at the office; others are equally uncomfortable remaining silent; and still others feel both ways at once.
So we asked some experts, including organizational psychologists, business professors, and corporate consultants, for guidelines on how to address these terrible events in the workplace.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the news at work.
If you’re a manager, be sensitive to the fact that many of your employees are likely distraught. Tell them that you sympathize with their concerns, and offer to set aside a time–whether it’s a small group discussion or a larger forum—to talk through people’s concerns.
If you’re an employee whose company isn’t acknowledging the tragedy, and you feel it should, bring your concerns to a trusted senior colleague or mentor in the office, suggests Kira Banks, an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Louis University who studies race relations. Let that person know that employees are upset about what’s happened, and ask whether it would be possible to organize a forum for any employees who wish to talk.
When they do happen, work to make these discussions productive rather than incendiary. “Ask yourself what the purpose of having this conversation is,” David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company focused on human behavior, told my colleague Alexandra Mondalek in the wake of last month’s Orlando shootings.
And remember: This is a forum for discussion, not a platform for launching political action. “If you want to express sadness for the victims or support, do that,” Maxfield added. “Where the conversation turns risky, though, is when people are looking for a solution to the event.”
Be clear about your feelings and compassionate toward those of others.
Make sure you’re being candid about your views, says New York University professor Erica Foldy, co-author of The Color Bind: Talking (and not Talking) about Race at Work. However, she adds, be prepared to acknowledge that other people may not feel the same way, and couch your statements with phrases like “from my perspective” or “This is a reaction I’m having.”
Foldy recommends asking colleagues about their feelings and opinions. And even if you disagree, show them that you respect their viewpoints and sympathize with their distress by saying things like “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now.” Acknowledging that most situations will have “multiple truths,” Foldy says, makes it more likely that everyone will walk away ready to be productive.
Stay committed to the conversation, even if it becomes uncomfortable.
Chances are, you’re not going to agree with all your coworkers over highly politicized issues like race and gun violence. Stick to the conversation even if it becomes awkward. If matters become too heated, make sure that you stay calm and respond to your coworkers with respect and understanding. Use phrases like “I appreciate you sharing your thoughts” when you come across a viewpoint different from your own. “Don’t get defensive,” Banks said. “Be responsible for yourself and be engaged.”
If the talk becomes too politically charged, use logic to deescalate the situation, advised Alison Davis-Blake, a professor of business and former dean at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Remember that people’s reactions, especially in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, are likely to be emotional.
Don’t vent on social media.
Try to keep your emotional reactions to national tragedies offline, especially if you are connected to coworkers or your boss via social media. You’re more likely to speak rashly and provocatively, which is “what you want to avoid” when you’re talking about sensitive issues with your colleagues, Foldy says. Ranting on social media also increases the likelihood that your statements or intentions will be misunderstood.
In person, you’re likely to quickly recognize such misunderstandings and try to clarify or diffuse your point. You rarely get such a second chance on social media, which has a tendency to amplify those errors of judgment. “In many instances, especially in the initial raw moments, [social media is] not the most effective way to process emotion,” Davis-Blake says.
Look into resources provided by your employer to help you/your coworkers cope.
Maybe you’re not comfortable talking about potentially contentious events like the Dallas shootings with your coworkers, but still need to someone with whom to discuss your feelings. Ask your employer if there’s an “employee assistance program,” a voluntary, confidential program that helps workers deal with challenges that could adversely impact job performance or health. If your company doesn’t have such a service, ask about alternative counseling services, or even look into online and community-based events that could help you work through your feelings.