How to talk about [bleep] at work?

Often at work, we focus on our job and avoid sensitivities: the [bleep] topics. That’s practical. But when we ignore sensitivities or cancel other opinions we miss out on the huge opportunity of building our collective intelligence and agency to solve the challenges that people and organizations face. If you address them (including #DEI and #ESG issues like climate change) you build relationships and come up with actionable ideas together. Let’s talk about any [bleep] that matters. Dialogue is always relevant for work. Let’s become courageous, positive influencers.

What’s sensitive depends on your workplace and its current culture. It is not the dominant view and values, or the established ways of operating, based on the past. What is sensitive entails often a minority view and values, and everything new, unknown, uncomfortable, painful, uncertain, not yet defined and future-oriented.
Sensitive topics include issues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI), and environmental, social, and governance issues (ESG). These topics aren’t common knowledge and practice yet. We’re currently exploring them as a society, as organizations, and individuals. For instance, what do we think and how do we feel about climate change? About Black Lives Matter? What to do about it as an organization, as an individual? And so on.

Dialogue is relevant for work

Is this relevant for work? Shouldn’t we leave opinions at home and focus on the job? No, as I argued in my last post [link]. A positive culture fosters dialogue on what matters and comes up with actionable solutions without canceling “the other” and “other views”. A positive culture does not cherish taboo topics, whether in business meetings or private chats during the breaks.

A positive culture thrives on connection and conversations, openness and new ideas. Dialogue is always relevant for work. Let’s hone our skills to ask, listen, and share ideas. Especially as that’s not what’s happening out there.

Cancel the cancel culture

A “cancel culture” has become common in the public sphere, but also at work. Ignoring and canceling are quick and easy. But it damages dialogue, relationships, great questions and ideas, and mutual trust. When there’s silience (from ignoring) or judgment (based on just 2 options: right or wrong) we overlook the “fifty shades of nuance” between right and wrong where solutions grow, fertilized by trust.

Given the huge global challenges we face, this lack of dialogue is dangerous. We need to listen and try to understand “the others” instead of canceling or ignoring them. We need to find common ground and collaborate to solve our current and future issues.

When we tiptoe around what may be sensitive we miss out on: building a relationship with our co-workers, understanding their needs and wants, and building trust. We also miss out on great collaboration, well-paced agility, better innovations, high performance and top productivity.

In an organizational culture that fosters dialogue, people can talk about anything with anyone. They experience social safety and influence each other for the better. Positive organizational cultures without taboos raise the bottom line. It’s not just nice. Organizations need to develop their untapped potential and contribute their best solutions to the market and societies.

Through dialogue, we bridge the divide and the judgments. We influence each other. Together we are smarter and co-create more actionable options than just “good” or “bad”. We’re more engaged, creative, productive at work. Research suggests that a positive organizational culture can yield 20-40% better performance.

How to talk about [bleep] at work?

So, how to talk about a sensitive topic at work? For instance, climate change. (See the image on World Overshoot Day: how much longer can we continue using more than the planet can replenish or repair per year?).How to talk about [bleep] at work? The [bleep] is anything that may be taboo or sensitive in your culture.

Here’s a video about making it easier and effective, based on the research of Dr. Renee Lertzman.


The most important secret is: listen! Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Don’t rant about the climate [or the bleep], don’t try to convince, but do a dialogue.
Get permission first: is this a good time?
Start with a question: it’s about their perspective. What do they think about [bleep]?
Equally important: resist the urge to respond, don’t interrupt. It’s not your turn until you learn something (more) about them.
Then share what you think, feel, tell your story- and listen to their response. End with sharing what you learned from them – after a real conversation you see how they see it.

Don’t not talk about [bleep]

More advice comes from Katharine Hayhoe. She shows how you can build a dialogue or respectful discussion by first establishing a common ground of shared values. We’re all human, we have family, we might worry about the future (for children, grandchildren, next generations). We care about our communities and about values like freedom, safety, respect – who doesn’t want that? Hayhoe says: Hope begins with a conversation today. It makes you feel heard, and not so alone amidst the giant climate change challenge. Or any other [bleep] challenge or taboo topic that you want to discuss.
Start from the heart, not about facts right away. Facts make people dig in deeper (yes! but, no!) and can lead to fierce debate instead of fruitful dialogue. Begin with values, with sharing common feelings, signaling: “I’m like you, I worry….”

What’s crucial: talk about it! What we do not talk about is what cannot be acknowledged and resolved or improved. What we do not talk about does not go away. It keeps interfering below the waterline until we address it. The power of dialogue helps to improve both results and relationships.

Climate change and other [bleep] topics

As climate change becomes so apparent and urgent, we need to speed up by talking about it, says Hayhoe. But what if you’re one of many employees? That’s fine! You influence your co-workers all the time with your actions and interactions. By talking about climate change (or any other [bleep] topic) you invite the others to start thinking about it. That’s the first step to improve anything.

What also helps:

Find support for the topic: Who is responsible for corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability in your organization? Which colleagues think climate is important? Connect with existing initiatives and see what you can add.

Find out who is in charge: Who makes the decisions on energy consumption in your office, sustainable procurement, and so on? Or who can influence these decisions?

Come up with ideas: When you suggest alternatives, it’s easier for others to take action. Can you do your work more sustainably? Think about buying green electricity, installing motion sensors for lights and vegetarian lunches.
Connect with what your organization does: reach a new type of customer who values sustainability, lower costs through energy savings in your workplace, or a financial contribution for e-bikes instead of company cars.
Connect to the strengths of your organization. Hospitality? Invite people to an event about sustainable solutions. Logistics? Focus on eliminating waste. Care? Take care of the green area next to the parking lot.
Want a bigger approach? Then cut the greenhouse gas emissions. That’s less threatening than changing the entire business model. Successful first steps can reduce resistance.
Suggest doing a program at work, such as a ‘low car diet’ or ‘the footprint challenge’.

You can also influence other organizations on any [bleep] topic. How about a climate conversation at your gym, the hairdresser’s or local library? Ask what they do about sustainability or tell about a positive experience. “Do you use green electricity?”, “What are some sustainable brands of shampoo?”, “We insulated the windows in our office building. That saved a lot of money.” Or ask your children’s school to participate in the school roof revolution (solar panels on all roofs). Send feedback to larger organizations.You might get them thinking. Send a complaint or a compliment to your bank or insurer.

Talk about any [bleep] that matters

We can influence others in our roles as citizens, neighbors, parents, co-workers, leaders. We can ask questions that invite them to think about topics that matter. We can understand how they see it. We can build relationships and come up with actionable ideas together. We can talk about any [bleep] that matters. Let’s become courageous, positive influencers.

Do you want more guidance on climate talk? Download the Talking Climate Handbook here.

© Marcella Bremer, 2022

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