Looking for answers to difficult questions in the New Year.

Many people continue to suffer from the results of our recent presidential election. They suffer not only from fear of the unknown (and the known!) that lies ahead, but also from the distress of trying to communicate with relatives, friends and co-workers who voted to go forward into the abyss with Donald Trump. I’ve listened to painful descriptions by mothers and daughters who can no longer speak together. Others have to cut short conversations with friends when they hear things like, “He seemed like the best alternative.”

When I hear those words, I am awash in a speechless sadness for our country. I’m sad because Trump doesn’t represent the best of anything. I’m speechless because I know the conversation about him as president will be fruitless and frustrating – and potentially the end of a friendship, at least for now.

But, I’d like to be able to speak with these people who presently seem to belong to another tribe. Is there a common language that we could converse in more comfortably? Is there a font of wisdom at which we could enjoy a drink together? What would the great philosophers suggest?

Here is what Aristotle had to say about friendship and knowledge:

 “A friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.”

“All people, by nature, desire knowledge.”

        These encouraging ideas lead me to think that perhaps a path to greater comfort with friends who think differently than I do lies in the way we conduct conversation. Perhaps it is as basic as how we ask questions. Sakichi Toyoda, who spearheaded the Japanese industrial revolution, developed a technique called “The Five Whys” to get to the root of a problem. It involves asking “why” no fewer than five times and is a simple, direct way to gather facts without emotional discourse.

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? I feel better already.

Seriously, asking a gentle “why” rather than firing off a cannonball response can help to at least keep the conversation disarmed.

There are other ways to ask questions, too, with the hope that the listener may become more informed about you and other points of view, and you will understand more deeply how they are informed. Here is what I’ve gathered from both the Greek and Internet philosophers about the art of asking questions:

  1. Plan your questions – before you meet, think about information goals and stay on track. Don’t approach the situation with the notion that you will win them over to your point of view. The goal is a broader conversation and better understanding of the other person (not that you can beat them into submission with words).
  2. Ask open-ended questions. “What do you like best about the Republican/Democratic Party?” is likely to reveal more to you about your friend than “How in the world can you like (a particular person)?”
  3. Stick with your purpose. You are gathering information to give you a more informed opinion about this person. Don’t get sidetracked by your own emotions.
  4. Use your friend’s frame of reference. Use words and phrases that you think they understand. Are they worried about the cost of education, retirement? Are they afraid of people who wear headscarves?
  5. Stay neutral. Don’t ask “How could you vote for a bully like Trump who is setting a bad example for children (and adults)?” Instead ask “Were there specific behaviors during the campaign that you agreed or disagreed with?”
  6. Move from general questions to specific ones. “Did you agree with the idea of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?”
  7. Keep questions short. “Are you comfortable with all of Trump’s choices?” “When do you think you are going to see a decrease in your health insurance premium?” “Who really  controls the cost of health insurance?”
  8. Don’t interrupt answers – especially with your opinion. You are trying to flesh out the world from their perspective and discover what informed their decision. Statements of what you believe that are masked as questions can be received as aggression.


The over-arching goal of all this is to establish a “pool of peace” around us and invite people in rather than push them out. Our style of conversing and asking questions should aim towards a treaty that allows us to share the same pool. Let’s make the pool interesting and safe enough that others will want to swim, and demonstrate that we are all lifeguards for each other.