If you have a family member who isn’t shy about voicing their political beliefs, you’re probably approaching this year’s Thanksgiving get-together with at least some sense of dread. You’re not alone. And since this year’s Thanksgiving occurs just a few weeks after the most contentious midterm elections in recent memory, the tension could be running especially high.
Sure, you can try to impose a ban on political discussion during the holiday gathering–good luck with that. When politics are this much on people’s minds, it’s impossible to avoid it altogether. Even chitchats about the weather can turn into a debate on climate change. A rant about football can lead to arguments about Colin Kaepernick.
But there’s a simple conversational recipe to keep the peace this Thanksgiving: ask three parts “question” to one part “statement.” Because if we’re asking a lot more than we’re telling–and we’re asking those questions with good intentions and the right tone–we can have more civil, engaging conversations, even with those who don’t share our views.
Questions don’t divide people. Answers do
The writer and humanitarian Elie Wiesel once observed: “People are united by questions. It is the answers that divide them.” In my years researching the power of questioning for a series of books on the subject, I talked to expert communicators in various fields–hostage negotiators, conflict resolution specialists, therapists, and coaches. I found that they always turn to questions when they need to build trust and rapport with others pretty quickly. These professionals often must forge connections with people who are angry, alienated, and in some cases dangerous–people who are even more difficult to reach than your obnoxious uncle.
When you ask someone a question, “you’re showing that you care about that person,” notes relationships researcher and professor of psychology Arthur Aron. Beyond that, if the question you ask is a good one, Aron says, “it encourages that other person to reveal something about themselves. That creates an opportunity for you to respond to what they are revealing.”
In his 30 years of research, Aron has found that after sharing a series of questions and answers, his study participants, who may be from very backgrounds and social groups, tend to like and understand each other much better. The positive feelings can extend toward the whole overall group of the other person–for example, Aron found that after exchanging thoughtful questions with someone from another race, a participant was more likely to have a positive feeling about that individual and all members of the other race.
The key to asking productive questions
A lot depends on what you ask and how you ask it. When asking questions in general–and especially when questioning someone who holds very different views than yours–you should be guided by your own unspoken question: What can I learn from this person who sees things differently than I do?
To avoid descending into conflict, your questions need to be fueled by curiosity. When we ask questions that are, at its core, accusations, such as “How could you support them?” we show that we aren’t particularly interested in the answers. We’re in fact, looking to shame people. But when you’re genuinely curious, you open your mind to new information, and the other party probably feels like you’re making an effort to understand their point of view.
How to find common ground when you disagree
You can signal your curiosity in simple ways: 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…” It’s especially important to “soften” questions when discussing hot-button issues. For instance, instead of “How could you support that candidate?” ask “I’d love to know what you admire most in that candidate you supported. What’s your favorite thing about them?”
You can then use their answers to try to find some area(s) of agreement. No, I don’t mean that you need to abandon your own beliefs; the idea is to try to find some element of the other’s belief that seems reasonable and understandable to you.
James Ryan, former dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, often relies on the question “couldn’t we at least agree that…” and fills in the blank with anything that seems like a reasonable point both sides can accept. This can be a building block to a civil conversation where the discussion, Ryan says, “focuses on what we agree on, instead of what we disagree on.” For example, when he and fellow professors begin to argue about different teaching methods, “I may ask something like, ‘Couldn’t we at least agree that everyone in this room wants to improve education for our students?'”
Don’t try to change people’s mind
Ultimately, you need to resist the idea that you can change someone’s mind about an issue. Research suggests you are unlikely to be able to do that, even if the facts seem to be on your side.
Here are two great questions, shared by the radio interviewer Krista Tippett, that can help create that slight shift. After you’ve solicited 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?” But be sure to turn those two questions on yourself, and share aspects of your position that may give you pause.
If all else fails, steer the subject away from contentious issues altogether. Ask questions that move the conversation to a safer place. Prompts like, “What binds our family together? What are some of the family accomplishments and traditions we hold dear?” are great for reminding everyone that there are certain values that transcend political differences.
Ultimately, you’ll find that you probably have more similarities than you think. As humans, we’re just hardwired to focus on the negatives. Don’t let that tendency ruin your Thanksgiving.
Warren Berger is the author of The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Beautiful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect and Lead.