by Marsha Rakestraw

a pair of people talking“Even if I find an opinion downright abhorrent, I keep asking more questions to gain better insight into that person’s perspective. It’s like conducting a scientific inquiry. The key is to stay respectful—and a sense of humor always helps.” —Alex Wagner, author of Futureface and CBS News contributor

“As a hostage negotiator, I could listen empathetically to anyone—even terrorists—once I realized that understanding and articulating someone’s viewpoint is not the same as agreeing with it. Decoupling those ideas is a powerful and liberating concept.” —Chris Voss, former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference


I’ve been taking an online course focused on the hard conversations involved in talking about racism and white supremacy in the US.

One of the issues that has arisen is how to engage in discussion about these difficult and emotionally charged issues with people who have differing views, or who may be easily triggered into defensiveness.

We’ve seen that as the US and other countries have become more politically polarized, civil discourse has declined. We often don’t know how to talk to each other when the topic is something about which we have strong and opposing views.

Civil, compassionate communication is something that needs to be taught and cultivated, starting at a young age.

One of the skills we can teach is how to engage in discussions — in which we’re bumping up against people’s opposing views and values — in ways that help those people (and us) maintain open minds and hearts.

We can start with a genuine desire to understand the other person and to be clear about why they believe what they believe.

Here is a list of questions and statements we can make to help build understanding and further the conversation (thanks to my fellow course classmates for some of these suggestions):

  • I’m wondering …
  • Help me understand …
  • Please say more about that…
  • We have different perspectives, can you tell me how you got there … ?
  • Can you explain why you feel that way?
  • I’m genuinely curious …
  • Here’s what I think I’m hearing … is that correct?
  • I notice I made an assumption about what you said and want to be clear about what you meant …
  • The story I tell myself when I hear/see X is …
  • What would you like me to know?
  • What’s your underlying need here?
  • What need is not being met?
  • Who is benefiting from …?
  • Who might be impacted by …?
  • What unintended consequences might … ?
  • I’m not sure I understand in the way that you said that; can you explain it differently so that I can better understand it … ?
  • I’m not sure I agree with what I heard … please tell me more.
  • When I hear X, I feel Y …; how does hearing this make you feel?
  • Now that I understand where you’re coming from, here’s my background and why I feel differently …

For more resources, see tips for teaching about “controversial” issues via our Pinterest board.

And see resources for teaching compassionate, effective communication skills via our Pinterest board.