How to talk about the EU referendum at work – without getting into a fight

That’s the last time I get him lunch. Shutterstock

The EU referendum is dividing Britain. It’s dividing left and left and right and right, too. Guardian readers and Sun readers are exchanging snide remarks over social media and friends are shouting at friends in pubs.

Workers are getting new – and possibly unwelcome – insights into the political views of their colleagues. The arguments are even fuelling Britain’s north/south divide.

Voting intention is an incredibly personal matter. Ideally, we should each weigh up the arguments from the opposing sides and make a reasoned judgement for remaining or for leaving. When we get to the polling station, there isn’t anybody there to offer guidance, to fact check for us, to calculate the odds for us.

But in the lead-up to the referendum, it’s all we can talk about. That means that the decision we make isn’t quite so self-derived. We watch the TV and read papers; we listen to politicians and consume propaganda; we consult with friends, family, and colleagues.

Referendums are unique in their ability to divide opinion. You need only look at the Conservative Party to see how deep that division can run. Feelings ran particularly high during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the repercussions are still being felt. A similar situation may play out across the whole of the UK – particularly if the referendum result is close.

So how can we all get through this together? How can we come a decision about how to vote on June 23 without losing our friends?

When worlds collide

The question of how to talk Brexit with colleagues is a particularly interesting one. Our identities at work are constructed from our life histories, our interactions with family, our education, and our experiences. It follows that our colleagues are often of a similar ilk – we all wound up in the same place and so our views are often (although, not always) quite similar.

This is great for groupthink – it means that your opinions and ideas are echoed, and you believe you’re doing the right thing. But it’s not so great for asserting your own political beliefs.

Psychological studies on conformity demonstrate that in groups people are likely to agree rather than be the outspoken voice of dissent.

In the context of the EU referendum; the views you hold are based on your identity, your innermost thoughts and feelings compounded by your experience, your class, your gender, your ethnicity. You will be voting for a “better” future for you, in the UK, based on all of these deeply personal things. What do you do if you don’t conform to the group? What happens if your needs aren’t the same as your colleagues who you otherwise so agree with?

Conflict is not uncommon at work, many of us are often faced with reconciling two incompatible goals, but rarely are these goals so life changing as the EU referendum. This type of conflict is far more personal, far more permanent, and far more important than a nagging boss, or a temporary budget cut. Not resolving this conflict will lead to a lack of group cohesion, we might expect to see lower work satisfaction, reductions in camaraderie and communication.

So what should you do?

Over the coming days, you will be exposed to divergent opinions; you’ll read radically different arguments in the press but also hear from your friends and colleagues. It is important to recognise the origin of these beliefs, your friends and work colleagues are speaking from their own experience, even if they are wholly different to your own.

Several recent examples show just how important it is to acknowledge that people have a different perspective to you. Take the row between health minister Jeremy Hunt and junior doctors. Hunt refused to engage with the striking doctors over their concerns about changes to their contracts, so their dispute dragged on for months. The same was true for the miners’ strike in the 1980s and the ongoing argument about making the London Underground a 24-hour service – an argument which has caused London to grind to a halt several times so far.

Don’t end up like Jeremy. PA/Andrew Matthews

In their research in the 1960s, Blake, Moulton, and Sloma deconstructed the relationship between management and unions and found that hostility between the groups was caused by a failure on both sides to identify the other’s goals.

Golden rules

All this offers some valuable lessons in how to talk about the referendum at work without causing any lasting damage.

The first thing to remember is to be informed. Read the facts, avoid the propaganda; assess what your own position actually is on leaving or remaining before you start debating.

Listen to the people you are talking to – even if you disagree with them. This goes back to the importance of understanding the experiences of others.

And when you are talking about your own views, put your point across calmly and clearly. Do so with an understanding of your beliefs and ability to back up your position factually.

You should also remember not to trivialise this situation. It’s an incredibly important decision we’re all about to make. One that is binding and irreversible. You should take other people’s views seriously, even when you think them wrong.

And don’t patronise. These issues are complex and not everybody may be as well informed as you. Give others the opportunity to see your side in a reasoned way.

Above all, talk about the EU referendum – don’t argue. This rule applies whether you’re at work, at home or in the pub. Tensions flare when we discuss deeply personal things in a passionate way. But whether Britain remains a member of the European Union on June 23, we’ve all still got to get up on June 24 on the same island.