Q: A group of people I work near are very outspoken, and very different from me in their attitudes and beliefs. It gets uncomfortable for me, but then I feel like I'm being too thin-skinned. What can I do?
A: You have the right to your opinions — even when, as in your case, you're in the minority. That implies, however, that your co-workers have that same right. The solution is peaceful coexistence. It sounds easy, but it doesn't always occur as simply as it might.
Start by taking a step back. If you were observing this from outside, how would you describe the situation? The possible climate could range anywhere from "people talking about their shared interests," which may unintentionally exclude you, to "people trying to intimidate the outsider," which would carry a strong negative message to you.
More often than not, it'll be benign, and that's the focus of this column. That said, if you perceive an intentional effort to intimidate you, it's an HR issue. Take it to your boss, or higher up if needed, to get it documented and addressed.
Assuming that your co-workers are not hostile, think about how you'd like the situation to be different.
For example, perhaps they're talking about social, political or religious views that you disagree with. Have you tried raising the alternative point of view that you hold? If so, what has the result been? If not, what has held you back?
With the right people and the right tone, this could create an opportunity for some truly expansive openings in thinking for all concerned.
It may be a matter of time and place. If you're a captive audience and can't avoid the conversations, it'll be more stressful than if you can just move away.
Also, if these topics are under discussion in areas where clients are present, there may be an "appropriateness" angle at play.
As far as getting on the same page as your colleagues, pick someone you feel comfortable with and who also has some influence in the group. Find a time when you're feeling relaxed to talk to him or her about the group dynamics.
Remember to use "I" statements, as in, "I feel anxious when the conversation turns to politics because my beliefs are so different from everyone else's." Propose solutions: "Can we agree to have a 'religion-free conversation zone'?"
Try to bring some humor to the situation — again, assuming that your colleagues are people of good intention, making a joke of your "overwhelmedness" may help them be considerate without putting them on the spot. No one likes to be guilted.
Take the initiative to redirect the conversation to books, movies, the great outdoors, hobbies … there are any number of noncontroversial topics to turn to, and it'll help if you can steer the conversation.
There also is a degree to which you may just need to tune it out. If you were in their shoes, you'd want to talk about the things you have in common sometimes, so give the group a break.
The more you can do that, the more apt they are to tone it down sometimes.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.