The pandemic, economic uncertainty, and political animus have in some ways highlighted our differences. That could make some of us less willing to engage with people with whom we disagree. A recent survey by Public Agenda, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and public engagement organization, shows one-third of respondents say divisiveness has even strained personal relationships. But a majority also believe in the value of differences of opinion. David Campt is the founder of The Dialogue Company. He tells WFDD's David Ford that one way to get those potentially uncomfortable conversations going is to ask questions.
On the importance of asking questions:
Asking questions changes what happens in the conversation because so often we're wondering whether we're at odds here. Is this person an enemy? Is this person trying to attack me? And the part of our brains that have evolved over time to be fearful of predators or of threats, gets activated socially as well, because we know that it's not in our interest to be excluded, or to have enemies even if socially. So, when you ask questions, especially when you ask questions about people's experiences, it calms that down, and it moves us toward, ‘Huh, maybe I'm going to be accepted here, maybe somebody is taking my humanity seriously, or me seriously and might accept me.' And so, you shift the nature of interaction, even if there's disagreements, you shift it by asking questions, especially experience questions. We try to say, 'How did you come to that conclusion?' And then have people tell you a story; it shifts where we are emotionally and psychologically.
On the impacts asking questions may have on the person being questioned:
What happens is the defenses lower and they feel maybe this is a domain, a setting in which I'm going to get acceptance, as opposed to maybe this is a domain in which I'm going to be attacked. It leads to a person feeling maybe appreciated or empathized with and we all want that. We all want a sense of belonging. And plus, it's just unusual because people do not ask, typically for people's experiences. People ask a lot for people's opinion: ‘What do you think about this, what do you think about that?' But what I'm suggesting is that we go deeper and ask, ‘What's an experience — tell me an experience that led you to that conclusion?' Even if it's a conclusion that we don't like. And what it does is it has the person shift from maybe I'm in a battle with somebody to I'm going to reflect on my own journey. So not only is there a sense of appreciation in that, but they also become reflective. I've seen situations where you ask people for an experience behind their opinion, and they realize I don't really have experiences based on that. I learned that from media or someplace else. We wind up spouting opinions we don't even necessarily have. But sometimes people realize, you know, I don't know why I believe that. You know, I've never experienced a certain group as lazy, or I've never experienced a certain people as close-minded. I've just been told that. But the bigger issue is that they feel appreciated. And that causes a shift itself.
On working your “ask muscle”:
So, part of what I try to teach is you've got to work on your ask muscle. That is very important. And so, the good news is we have difference of opinion with people all over the place: Coffee or tea? Beach or mountain? So part of what is the opportunity, especially when somebody has an opinion that is very different than you and part of you was going, ‘Why the heck does that person think like that?' is to stop, calm yourself down, to — from a place of center — say, ‘Okay, how can I craft this question in a thoughtful, intentional manner, where I'm honoring wherever the person is on the possible answers?' I'm gonna tee it up and just let them know, through what I say and my nonverbals, I'm really interested in your experiences. And by doing that — I mean, you do have to deal with the wind out of your sails thing — that ‘I can't that we have a different opinion.' You do have to deal with that internally, in order to then manifest to the person, the level of interest, empathy and compassion involved in your being interested in their experience.
*Editor's Note: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.