Can’t We All Just Get Along?
How asking questions can help us bridge the growing divide.
Posted August 7, 2018
Elie Wiesel once observed: “People are united by questions. It is the answers that divide them.”
Today, those “answers” and assertions we’re all prone to spouting—often just opinions dressed up as certainties—seem to be dividing us more than ever, at town halls and holiday dinners.
If we’re looking for solutions to this growing problem of polarization, we might want to start by asking each other more questions.
As I researched the power of questioning for The Book of Beautiful Questions, I talked to experts in various fields who tended to agree that by asking thoughtful, curious questions of another person, we can quickly build trust and rapport—even with people who might see the world differently than we do.
When questions are formulated and asked the right way, they can do a few key things to draw people closer together, says relationship researcher Arthur Aron. “First, just by asking questions, you’re showing that you care about the other person,” Aron explains. “Second, the question encourages that person to reveal something about themselves. And then that creates an opportunity for you to respond to what they are revealing.”
Over the past few decades, Aron has conducted experiments in which strangers are paired up and instructed to ask one another a series of questions—and he has found it to be a surprisingly effective relationship-building tool. This has even been true when the question-asking experiments were conducted among people who might be expected to have very different perspectives and attitudes. For example, Aron has paired up questioners of different races, and in another study, he instructed police officers and local citizens to ask questions of one another.
After sharing questions and answers, the participants tended to like and understand each other better. Beyond that, Aron also found that the questioning exercises generated positive feelings that extended to the overall group—thus, the person who shared questions with a police officer was then apt to like all police more, and likewise for those who exchanged questions with someone from another race.
Of course, in using questions to better connect with someone, what you ask and how you ask it is critical. Questions worded poorly or asked in the wrong tone can be off-putting or even confrontational. To quote the radio interviewer and expert questioner Krista Tippett: “It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.” I think of such inviting questions as “bridge questions”—because they can help us traverse the divide that separates us from others.
Building a Question Bridge
If you’d like to try building a question bridge that might help you reach out to someone you’ve been having trouble connecting with (be it a co-worker you tend to disagree with or an uncle with sharply different political views), here are few points to keep in mind:
• Begin by asking yourself a question. Why am I trying to cross this particular divide? It’s usually a worthwhile and admirable thing to attempt—but just make sure you’re doing it for the “right” reasons. Those might include: trying to repair or strengthen a personal relationship that’s important to you; trying to promote civil discourse and greater understanding among people within your circle at work, among friends, or at home; or, it could be that you want to broaden your own thinking.
But if you’re planning to cross that divide so you can convert someone on the other side to your point of view, forget about it. The evidence suggests you’re unlikely to succeed (no matter how many facts and talking points you’re armed with)—and you may end up doing more harm than good to the relationship.
• Decide, at the outset, that you’re going to be driven by curiosity. And that your “guiding question,” throughout this interaction, will be: What can I learn from this person who sees things differently than I do?
Not only does curiosity help open up your own thinking to new information, it also signals to the other person that you’re coming to this exchange seeking to understand, rather than to attack or judge. You can signal your curiosity in simple ways: foremost by listening intently, but also by prefacing your own questions with phrases like, “I’m curious about something,” or “I was wondering about this, and maybe you can help me understand…”
• As you begin, be careful about allowing your own views and assumptions to influence your questions. Particularly when discussing hot-button issues, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking loaded questions such as, How on earth could you believe such a thing? In order to move the conversation forward, you should be asking questions that are free of assumptions, judgments, and veiled criticism, says Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media, a group that organizes and hosts conversations between groups with opposing viewpoints.
One of Spaceship Media’s most recent projects, “Guns: An American Conversation,” brought together people who disagree on that controversial subject; the participants communicated with each other for a month via a moderated Facebook Group. The moderators coached and steered participants away from asking questions that contained “embedded assumptions.” For example, one anti-gun participant initially wanted to ask gun owners in the group, What are you so afraid of?, but was then coached to reframe the question to: Can you tell me more about why you feel you need lots of guns?
• Once you’ve asked questions that respectfully solicit the other person’s views and feelings, try to find some area(s) of agreement. This does not mean you have to back down from your own stance or beliefs. It isn’t necessary to agree with someone else’s overall position; the idea is to try to find some element of their belief that seems reasonable and understandable--“it could be their goals, intentions, concerns, emotions,” says Josh Davis, senior director of research at the Institute for Personal Leadership.
You can use questions to help locate that common ground. James Ryan, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, often relies on the question: Couldn’t we at least agree that ___? (You can fill in that blank with anything that seems like a reasonable point both sides can accept). “Asking ‘Couldn’t we at least agree?’ is a way to push back against polarization and extremism, because it is an invitation to find some areas of consensus,” according to Ryan. He told me he uses the question “whenever there’s an impasse.” For example, during heated discussions with fellow educators about different teaching methods, Ryan may ask something like, Couldn’t we at least agree that everyone in this room wants to improve education for our students? “It lowers the temperature and refocuses the conversation on what we agree on, instead of what we disagree on,” Ryan says.
• Challenge your conversation partner to shift his/her thinking, just a little. And challenge yourself to do likewise. Here are two great questions that can help with that: After you’ve inquired about the other person’s views and shared your own, try asking: Can you find anything in your position that gives you pause? Then follow that up with: Is there anything in my position that you are attracted to or find interesting? Be sure to then turn those two questions on yourself. This forces both of you to acknowledge flaws in your own argument and strengths in the other person’s argument. (Hat tip to radio host Tippett, who featured a slightly different version of these two questions in her book, Becoming Wise).
• If all else fails, try this trick. Using a technique adapted from an area of study known as “motivational interviewing,” ask your companion to rate something the/she disagrees with on a scale of one to ten. For example: On a scale of 1 to 10, how much of global climate change theory do you think is true? (1 = None of it is true; 10 = All of it is true).
Researchers have found that even when people are rating something they disagree with or don’t like, they rarely pick the lowest number. They’re more likely to cite a low-range number like two or three. In which case, you can follow up by asking: Why did you pick two or three, instead of the lowest number? To answer that question, the person is almost forced to come up with something positive about your position—which means they are beginning to articulate the other side of their own argument.
• Take it slow. don’t expect to reach total agreement on anything quickly. “Science Guy” Bill Nye reminds us that we must be patient with those whose views differ from our own. “We tend to say, ‘Look at the facts! Change your mind!’ But it can take people a couple of years to change their mind.” In the meantime, Nye suggests that “the way to overcome that is to say, ‘We’re all in this together—let’s learn about this together.’”
“… People are united by questions…” Elie Wiesel, “The Loneliness of Moses,” published in the book Loneliness by Leroy S. Rouner (University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).
“… the relationships researcher Arthur Aron…” From my Fall 2017 interview with Arthur Aron for The Book of Beautiful Questions (Bloomsbury, October 2018).
“… It’s hard to transcend a combative question…” Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin Press, 2016).
“… evidence suggests you’re unlikely to succeed (no matter how many facts and talking points you’re armed with)…” Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker, Feb. 27, 2017.
“… One of Spaceship Media’s most recent projects…” The project, “Guns: An American Conversation,” was featured in “21 Americans with Opposing Views on Guns Sat Down to Talk to Each Other. Here’s What They Discovered,” by Kelly Benham French, Thomas French, and Ben Montgomery, Time, July 9, 2018. www.time.com/longform/both-sides-gun-control/. Information about the project also came from my July 2018 interview with Jeremy Hay and Eve Pearlman, co-founders of Spaceship Media.
“… it could be their goals, intentions, concerns, emotions…” “The Emotionally Intelligent Way to Resolve Disagreements Faster,” Josh Davis, Fast Company, July 24, 2018, www.fastcompany.com/90206297/the-emotionally-intelligent-way-to-resolve-disagreements-faster
“… Couldn’t we at least agree that ___?...” From my fall 2017 interview with James Ryan. The question is also featured in Ryan’s book, Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, (Harper Collins, 2017).
“… Tippett featured a slightly different version of these two questions in her book…” In Becoming Wise, Tippett attributes the questions to one of her radio show guests, Frances Kissling.
“…Using a technique adapted from an area of study known as “motivational interviewing…” Michael V. Pantalone, Instant Influence (Little, Brown and Company, 2011).
“…’Science Guy’ Bill Nye reminds us that we must be patient…” From the video “Hey Bill Nye! How Do You Reason with a Science Skeptic,” Big Think, April 4, 2017. bigthink.com/videos/hey-bill-nye-how-do-you-reason-with-a-science-skeptic