By Dr. Ivan Misner

Yes, I believe everyone should talk about politics and religion while networking… if they’d like their network to go up in flames, that is.

Okay, I admit that I chose this title to get your attention. Talking politics and religion in the course of doing business — or networking for business — certainly is not a good idea. This topic is brought to my attention more often these days, and so I thought it was time I write something about it.

In the United States, every four years we have the opportunity as citizens to select the new leader of our country. Entrepreneurs often have very strong opinions about who should be that leader. Those opinions often bleed over into networking meetings.

Before I did my graduate work in organizational behavior, I received a bachelor’s degree in political science. As a political science graduate, I was very interested in politics–and I still am. However, I do not discuss politics or religion while I am out networking.

Why? Because doing so gets our eyes off the ball; it takes us away from what we are supposed to be doing while we are trying to build our business. When I bring this subject up I sometimes get a few (very vocal) people who say that it is their “right” to discuss politics, religion, or anything they want when they meet people. To that I say — I completely agree. However, just because it is someone’s “right,” doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Having the right to do or talk about something and having the realistic expectation that it will actually help you in some way are two totally different things.

One of the ways I’ve been able to stay successful in my business is by staying focused on my professional mission. If you look at other successful people, you would most certainly see that they do the same. Anything that takes us away from our own professional missions is a distraction and — simply put — there is no bigger set of distractions to a networking organization than religion and politics.

I’ve been a registered voter since I was 18 years old (and have voted in every major election since then). I have also been active in a church since childhood. Throughout my life, I’ve been involved in many local, state, and national political campaigns. I also have well-established religious beliefs. However, you don’t (and won’t) know my political or religious views unless you are a close friend of mine.

That’s because neither of these personal practices — certainly not discussed in detail — is pertinent to my professional life.

Why do I say this? Because it is not appropriate to espouse those opinions in the context of one’s business networking efforts. It can be not only distracting, but also highly divisive — and is certainly not conducive to team building. If you want to build a powerful personal network for business, it is all about collaboration and cooperation. I have seen in many networking groups that start talking politics and religion where the group then becomes a hotbed of anger, anxiety, resentment, and conflict. None of these attributes are good for building a healthy business network.

I understand that there are political and sometimes religious issues about which we have strong opinions–I certainly have some. However, your business network is not the place for these discussions, because they are almost always divisive.

This doesn’t mean that to be a professional in this world you must be apolitical. It is perfectly fine to have strong political and religious beliefs. However, unless politics or religion is your business, your beliefs can only serve as a distraction in a business context — and certainly could prohibit a day’s business taking place as successfully as it could.

My business operates in countries where almost every religion in the world is practiced. We are in countries that represent virtually every political system in the world. We wouldn’t be effective if we focused on something other than our mission. Many of our clients have contentious political and religious positions, but when they are working with our company, they focus on the mission of relationships and referrals.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to understand the difference between engaging in discussions about politics and religion in a networking environment vs. a little tolerance for people who share their points of view outside that context. For example, I recently had a client get upset with me because a well-known author contributed a business piece to our company newsletter. The article was on-topic and strictly business. However, a link to his personal web site was included, and his web site mentioned religion. Despite the fact that the article was great — the reaction from some people was negative because of the link to his comments about religion. We can’t control what people think or say on other web sites or in their personal lives. We can, however, control what we do inside our own organizations.

If you want to stay on mission — stay off the topics of religion and politics at work meetings. But, really, shouldn’t we all know that already?

Called the “father of modern networking” by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author. He is the Founder and Chairman of BNI, the world’s largest business networking organization. His newest book can be viewed at www.BusinessNetworkingandSex.com. Dr. Misner is also the Sr. Partner for the Referral Institute, an international referral training company.