Think of a controversial issue in the news. More likely than not, youâ€™ve already formed opinions about it.
How did you come to those opinions?
The question keeps arising for me this month, thanks to conversations about the complex of issues surrounding violence, guns, terrorism, and Islam. Several of my â€œconversation partnersâ€ are people with whom I vehemently disagree; in a couple of cases their opinions are repugnant to me. If I had encountered their thoughts in passingâ€”in a river of Facebook comments, in a tweet, in a casual remarkâ€”I might have dismissed them out of hand.
With one fellow in particular, howeverâ€”an ardent anti-immigrationist who even questions the value of diversity for human communityâ€”the conversation has taken a different turn. The more he explains about his belief, the more I see how much thought he has put into it. He makes connections I never would have considered. (Who sees rigid controls on immigration as a justice issue for low-income people? He does.) He cites research. Some of his language implies that personal circumstances might fuel his ideas.
By instinct, I am a complete fruitcake on immigration. I think we should let â€˜em all in. Everybody. Carte blanche. No exceptions. Or at least that should be our starting point. In that context, the conversation weâ€™ve had has had a substantial effect. No, I am not persuaded to convert to this fellowâ€™s opinions. But the dialogue with him has persuaded me that my conviction needs work. Perhaps a lot of work.
Seeing how he came to his opinions made the difference.
So whatâ€™s the takeaway here? Allow me to come at it in a roundabout way. It has to do, in a sense, with the power of stories.
The dialogue field is big on storytelling. When people tell their stories, we see their humanity. We can empathize with them. Storytelling takes dialogue away from the abstractions that dominate our media landscape and pushes it into context and nuance. We can start to see, in many cases, how a reasonable person might just arrive at the opinion that gives us the shivers.
What Iâ€™m wondering is whether how did you come to your opinions?â€”which is an invitation to tell another type of storyâ€”may also allow us to filter out the media noise.
Hereâ€™s what I mean. If I express an opinion that sounds ripped from the media headlines, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it challenges me to probe deeper, to form and own an opinion that is more authentically mine. If I express an opinion with greater depth, your question how did you come to your opinion? encourages me to reveal that depth and (I hope) inspire you to reflect on it and respond in kind. If Iâ€™ve based my opinions on sources you find questionable, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it allows us to go well beyond the issue at hand and into deeper questions of media and knowledge and trust.
Whatever the case, we begin to enter a dialogue and reflection that exposes our opinions to the thinking of our dialogue partner. That in turn can shape our opinions and, hopefully, bring them closer to the truth, or the heart of the matter. At the same time, we forge the type of connections that dialogue is famous for making.
Best of all, that simple question opens a door for us to leave those scripted catchphrases and simplistic media headlines far behind. Weâ€™re liberated from the â€œboxâ€ of those sound bites, which so often set the parameters of debate in the public square. Instead, the question moves us outside the box, and we van hear and think and feel for ourselves.
It might even be a good question for self-reflection. How do you come to your opinions? And how might this question help you make progress with that person who makes your blood boil?
[Disclosure/defense: John told me about his post in an email, and I answered in email, and he asked me to post what I said here. This is what I said.]
It’s a great question, as a question. It might not result in a story. My experience has been that, when you want somebody to tell you a story, you have to write a question that cannot be answered in any other way.
That’s because people try NOT to tell stories, especially when they feel challenged or vulnerable.
I have a feeling some people might still be able to wiggle out of telling a story in answer to your question. They might say, “I come to my opinions because they are right. Are you trying to challenge that?”
Using the past tense might help. “How DID you come to your opinions” is better than “How DO you come to your opinions” because it implies a history. I see that you do have the past tense form of it later in your post. Using past tense is a great way to signal willingness to hear a story.
Also, using “opinions” plural might seem like a challenge, along the lines of “what the hell are you thinking?”. I would focus it on ONE opinion only. People can’t have ONE story about how they came to ALL of their opinions at the same time. Focusing on one opinion makes it clear that you want to hear about their experiences in particular, not in general.
Other good questions might be:
– What led you to feel the way you do about ____?
– What experiences led you to your opinion about ____?
– What experiences led you to arrive at your opinion on ____?
– What happened that led to your opinion on ____?
– How did you come to feel the way you do about ____?
– How did you arrive at your opinion on ____?
– Looking back, what do you think changed your mind about ____?
– When do you think your opinion of ____ solidified?
– Did you always feel the way you do now about ____? Or did your feelings about it change? What happened that made them change?
– Did anything ever change your mind about ___? What happened?
– Can you recall a turning point in your experience with ___? What happened?
– How do you think you came to your opinion about ____?
– What events in your life led to your feeling the way you do about ___?
– What is the history of your opinion about ___? What came before now?
– I’m curious about how your feelings about ____ developed. How did you feel about it ten years ago? How did your feelings change?
– What got you interested in ___? What caused you to think about it?
– What’s your history with ___? How did you experience it?
– I’d like to understand more about how you developed your opinion about ___. What led you to your current position?
Your question would work in a lot of cases, but it might fail to engage someone who was hesitant to expose themselves to possible ridicule.
Someone who feels especially vulnerable or attacked might not respond with a story. I’ve worked on a lot of projects where we asked people to tell us about their experiences, and you’d be amazed how strenuously some people (usually the people we most need to hear from) struggle to get out of telling what actually happened to them so they can fall back onto a platitude or a claim.
Especially when people feel like their values and beliefs are being threatened, they view being asked to tell a story as being asked to justify – as in give an account – of their position. That’s not strange, because stories ARE used to establish accountability. I try to avoid an accountability-focused “putting people on the spot” question by using words that tend toward reflection, looking back, reminiscence, self-expression, to say that I’d like to *enter into* their experience rather than *interrogate* them on it.
Hope that’s helpful! 🙂