Use ‘to think about the news’ questions in everyday political conversations

There are now multiple conversations at cross-purposes on the fall out from the Special Counsel’s report and it has been an excellent example of how to analyze and reflect on what is presented as the news. It is time to move on, however, and wrap up the process of asking questions that I have walked us through the last six weeks. The Mueller Report was a fortuitous opportunity as we started the blog to introduce people to how concepts drawn from the Human Science tradition can provide insights and tools to engage in our polarized civic discourse. The questions underpinning the posts for the last six weeks about point of view, who wants my attention and why, and who benefits offer a framework for analyzing narratives from individual or group stories to political paradigms that result in the policies that guide local, state, national, or international governmental entities. Here are some examples of how these questions may work in different situations to:

  • understand the context of a point of view,
  • find some common ground with a person with a different perspective,
  • collaborate with people who see an issue from a different angle, or
  • effectively develop strategies to counter a narrative and resist or defeat a policy in place, or being proposed, that is contrary to your beliefs and values.

Because so many of us find it difficult to talk to friends and family now days, I  suggest some ways that this framework can be used in these kinds of conversations here. Next week I’ll take on the larger issues of understanding historic societal myths, the manipulation of groups by special interests to manufacture a point of view, and the political and economic paradigms that support the exploitation of people and planet.

The first step in talking to individuals or participating in groups, of course, is wanting to hear another point of view. In situating democracy in the human heart, Terry Tempest Williams in The Open Space of Democracy (2004), asks these challenging questions:

“Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinion?”

It doesn’t sound quite natural to ask “what is your background or context?” or “what are the origins of your point of view?” when you are talking to family or friends. But you could, before you say that’s ridiculous and offer your own opinion, try out try the conversational strategies that journalists, therapists, researchers, and others who interview people use to elicit information. These small turns of phrase include: “That’s interesting, tell me more?,” “Oh, why do you think that?”, “I don’t understand, can you explain that idea ?”, “That is different than my understanding, where did you learn that?” The trick to using these kinds of questions in a conversation, though, is that you need to stop talking.

In Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (2019), Robert A. Caro describes how waiting, that is, letting the silence in a conversation become palpable can be a great strategy if you want to learn what people know and the context that may have shaped their perceptions. We all move to fill the silence in a conversation and Caro describes his own trick for keeping his mouth shut. He writes: “SU” (Shut Up) in his notes as he is waiting for the other person to break the silence. He describes the tricks that some fictional detectives use to create the necessity to answer. You might try to spot these in the next crime drama you watch. At first, I did not connect this strategy to this form of inquiry, but it is what I do as a researcher. I try not to ask leading question, that is, those that suggest what I want to hear and I try not to step on the answers.

Caro also describes how he just keeps asking questions until the other person gets to the heart of the matter. This can exasperate some people, like the toddler who keeps asking “why, why, why,” so we probably do not want to do this in ordinary settings. But, the next time your brother says something outrageous with the justification “that is what Dad always said,” you could ask, “When did you hear that, I just don’t remember it that way?” Then you wait, and you wait, to let your sibling take the minute or so it takes to dredge up an example to defend his statement. Maybe this puts you on the ground to talk about your different experiences as children and recall or rebuild a bond. Now, at the very least, you are actually having a conversation rather than a sparring match.

Or, perhaps, you are talking to a friend and are a bit astonished by their opinion of something in the news; you could say: “I didn’t see that, where did you read that?” If you are a New York Times reader and your friend follows the Wall Street Journal (or something you consider definitely on the fringe), you have lots of information about how deep the divide might be between your perceptions of reality. In spite of having different sources of information you may wind up in a conversation about how point of view is influenced and you both find you have ideas independent of your news ‘bubbles.’ It takes time and commitment in a conversation to let go of our default positioning and that is the utility of stopping to ask a question and waiting for an answer.

Different perceptions can also arise in groups focused on specific issues where you imagine that you share the same values, ideas, and solutions to the problem at hand. Especially surprising when you are at a meeting of a social change group that is deciding on what actions should be taken after the last protest march and realize that some people have an analysis of the problem quite different than yours and goals that are not aligned with your values. Many an activist organization has split over distinctly different philosophies that emerged in the fever of organizing.. A recent and very public example is the conflict between leaders of the Women’s March with charges of anti-Semitism creating conflict and chaos in planning future actions. My own experience in social change movement organizations is marked by conflict over leadership and gender, and, a lack of appreciation for people working on change through educational or policy approaches instead of direct action.

These are generalizations about how this process and these questions can work on the personal level. You can use them on the big belief systems too – social, political, and cultural. Next week, I’ll consider those. In the interim you might check out the Still Doing Democracy website ( where Jim Smith and I are writing from a more explicitly political point of view and how to use this framework to be an effective agent of social change. SDD is a sponsored project of the Human Science Institute.


JoAnn McAllister

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