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Seven Questions to Engage the Politically Polarized
By:   Doug Noll, IAM Distinguished Fellow
Email: doug@nollassociates.com                                                                                          Posted: August 28, 2017

What do you do if you are in a conversation – which may include a mediation – with someone who is adamant and strident about his or her values and beliefs? In today's polarized society, this is more likely to happen than ever before. How can you keep the exchange from spiraling out of control?  I begin with a couple of secrets:

The first secret is to make the conversation about the other person, not about you. By asking self-reflective, open-ended questions, you show respect.

The second secret is to not argue your views. You will never persuade someone to change values. Brain research shows that deeply-held beliefs are strengthened, not weakened, when confronted with contradictory but true facts.

Usually, there has to be some life-altering event to cause people to think about themselves and the world differently. Accept that what people believe is what they believe. Remember that you cannot change an emotional value with logic, facts, or persuasion.

Instead, here are seven questions you can use to engage the politically polarized in conversations, including mediation.

What life experiences led you to the values you hold today?

This is such a simple question, yet is so powerful. People do not reflect on what causes them to believe the way they do. When you ask them to reflect on how their values were formed, you are helping them understand themselves. Sometimes, you will get a response like "I don't know." If the person you are talking with isn't prepared to do a little self-reflection, you might as well talk about the Super Bowl. You aren't going anywhere meaningful.

What is it about your values that make them important to you?

Values and beliefs are important because they provide a framework for understanding the world. They create reality. Asking why a set of values is important does not challenge them; it causes the other person to think about why they are important. Sometimes, this leads to circular thinking. Usually, others are grateful that you are making the inquiry.

How do you honor your values in everyday life?

This question causes people to compare what they think they believe with their everyday life. It can be discomfiting if the answer reveals inconsistency. For example, if one's housekeeper is undocumented and one supports anti-immigration and deportation policies, there is a disconnection between values and behaviors. Many people will state strong beliefs, such as "I am totally against big government," yet not see the incongruity of "But don't mess with my Medicare or Social Security." When asking this question, you must not argue nor try to prove a point. You have to come at this gently.

Do you ever work with people who have different values than you?

The answer is usually Yes. Most people don’t think about how the people around them may hold very different values. People tend to believe that everyone is just like them and see the world the same way.

How do you manage those relationships?

People will mostly say that they don't do anything special. Many will say live and let live. Again, this question causes reflection on the difference between actions and beliefs. A person might be perfectly fine with a Muslim neighbor, but adamant about a strong vetting policy for Muslim immigrants. Asking a question like this can give insight into how a polarized person really feels about politically hot issues.

When someone asserts belief in a value that is fundamentally different than your value, how do you feel?

Many people will deny being upset by opposing values. Asking people what emotional experiences occur allows them to reflect on their reactions. You can follow up with a "Why" question, such as "Why do you think you get upset when thinking about a woman's right to choose?"

How do you think a society composed of people with very different and opposing values should operate?

Most people want to see themselves as tolerant of difference. This question causes one to consider whether the polarization of society is the best way to co-exist with differing values. You might run across a person who simply wants to be rid of anyone who is different. Well, at least you know what the feelings are all about. Change the subject to the Super Bowl.

*   *   *   *   *

Remember, you are not in cross-examination mode. You are trying to engage polarized people to better understand them and for them to have an opportunity to explain themselves in a non-judgmental way. If you pull it off, you will find compassion and understanding flowing easily. This might not settle the case, but you will have listened respectfully and provided a rare gift of non-judgment. That is, at the end of the day, what much of our work is about.


Douglas E. Noll is a California mediator. His latest book, De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers. His speaking and teaching website is www.dougnoll.com.

© 2017 Douglas E. Noll

Please note that each IAM Blog posting represents the view of its individual author, but not necessarily others associated with IAM. IAM Blog Editor-in-Chief Keith L. Seat may be contacted at kseat@keithseat.com.


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