Crossing a great divide with “bridge questions”

by | Life

Welcome to a short excerpt from the new chapter “Asking Questions to Engage & Influence.”


“We all have it within us,” says the radio interviewer Krista Tippett, “to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.” I think of such questions as “bridge questions”—because they can help us traverse the divide that separates us from others. 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 a few ideas.

You might begin by asking yourself a question: Why am I trying to cross this particular divide? It’s often 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.

However, if you’re planning to cross that divide just so you can convert someone on the other side to your point of view, forget about it. It probably won’t work—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?

Lead with curiosity by using a “question sandwich”

As you begin asking questions, lead off by announcing your curiosity and end with your rationale for asking this question (the “question sandwich”): I’m genuinely curious about why you believe what you believeand the reason I’d like to understand this is because I want to try to see these issues from a different perspective.

Try to focus on how each of you came to hold such differing positions, suggests author David McRaney. “The idea is to have two people go shoulder to shoulder,” he says, “and try to understand: Why do you think we disagree? What are the motivations, the assumptions and prior experiences that led each of us to this point? How are they different?

It’s important to note that as you try to find possible areas 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 intentions, their concerns, or their values.

Values is a particularly rich area to mine: Research shows that if you simply get people talking a bit about their values—how they feel about, say, family, honesty, being a good neighbor—they subsequently tend to become less argumentative and more reasonable.

Questions are a great tool for finding common ground. James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, 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.) According to Ryan, “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.” 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? That question can lower the temperature in the room and help move the conversation forward.

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