Struggling to Talk Politics in an Age of Division? Lead with Curiosity

Learn why we should approach civic discourse with curiosity here.

Here’s something everyone can agree on: all is not well in American politics. 

There is distrust from both sides of the political spectrum — from the highest ranks of international affairs to the most local political movements. To borrow a quote from Mother Teresa, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

If Mother Teresa’s quote is a helpful diagnostic of our situation, then we must ask: “Why did we forget that we belong to each other?” and “How do we get this trust back?” 

The beginning of an answer lies in the human capacity for a spirit of curiosity. If we seek healing throughout our communities, across our country, and around our world, then approaching civic discourse with a mindset rooted in curiosity is a vital first step.

Why does curiosity help?

Curiosity is especially important for conversations with people we disagree with most. The act of asking genuine and insightful questions in a conversation about politics has a way of changing the atmosphere of the conversation. It helps move everyone involved into a space of mutual humility. This is an expression of hospitality and sincere care for other people — instead of engaging in unproductive arguments, we can enter into conversation with a collaborative mindset where we all search out better answers together. This shared pursuit is where the healing begins.

Solving the biggest problems — such as the conscious or unconscious ways our civic discourse is marked by racism, sexism, income inequality, etc. — begins with the most local efforts, so each of us has to also take a hard look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves about the ways we can grow. This begins with curiosity about oneself.

When we put effort into self-reflection, it sets us up for successful conversations down the road. Reflecting on questions like “Why do I think that?” or “Do I have enough information to really hold that opinion?” or “Who can help me understand this issue better?” can all grow a disposition of curiosity within us.

How can we grow curiosity in ourselves and in others?

Growing a spirit of curiosity in others begins with growing a sense of curiosity in ourselves first. The problems we face are too big for any one person, political party, or system to solve. If the problems were easy to fix, they would have been resolved by now. So we can start with an intellectual curiosity about the problems we face in order to gain new perspectives. 

More importantly, if we want to engage in real dialogue, we must be deeply curious about our conversation partners on a personal level. Thinking that the people we disagree with are simply uninformed, misinformed, or just plain wrong is an easy rut to fall into, but this probably isn’t fair. 

These kinds of judgments are also just unhelpful. The people we disagree with have personal life experiences that inform their political opinions. If we can show genuine curiosity toward our conversation partners about the sources of their political opinions, then we might discover something about the personal experiences they are rooted in. That is a movement toward solidarity — sharing life — which, in turn, may move them to show curiosity toward us. 

This is a hard and effort-filled strategy, but it promotes the kind of civic discourse we all hope to see. The exchange may not result in a conversion of opinion, but you will grow to respect one another more. Over the long haul, this kind of respect restores the social fabric of our communities and makes it easier to work toward the common good. 

What does curiosity look like?

Curiosity is generous and gentle. Curiosity assumes good will in our conversation partners. It gives the benefit of the doubt when there are points of conflict or confusion. We all know from personal experience that it takes courage to speak your truth, especially in the context of disagreement. Curiosity not only invites people to speak their truth, it also receives it with gentleness. Being gentle with others will only invite further conversation and mutual understanding.

Curiosity is contagious and disarming. A spirit of curiosity gives conversations a healthy vibe. People tend to enter political conversations in a defensive posture (this is especially true if the relationship has a history of strong disagreement about politics). We have to be patient with this, but when we express a spirit of curiosity toward others, there’s a decent chance that people will eventually let their guard down. This is when intelligent questions get asked and collaborative conversation begins. Eventually this leads to collaborative efforts.

Curiosity demands real responses with concrete content. Curiosity is unsatisfied with blaming other people and rejects unsatisfactory answers. Curiosity observes the details of the present situation, identifies what is already good, clarifies how the situation can improve, and lays out the steps required to get there. Curiosity helps us move from the abstract realm of ideas and theories and into the concrete reality of everyday life where we can personally make an impact. Using phrases like, “I wonder if…” or, “I want to imagine something better than…” can help move conversations in a constructive direction.

Curiosity cuts across “sides.” When people butt heads with opposing opinions, political conversations can often end with an “agree to disagree” mindset. But we can do better than this! Don’t we want our conversations to result in better ideas? Similarly, when all conversation partners agree politically, it can become easy to simply label the “other side” as wrong. A spirit of curiosity breaks down artificial barriers and labels that are so common on the political stage. There is no “other side” when it comes to curiosity. Curiosity helps us change our vocabulary from an “us” vs. “them” mindset to a “we” mindset. We are all on the same side — the side of humanity. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of that.

When we approach civic discourse with a spirit of curiosity, it brings a breath of fresh air into the conversation. There will always be political disagreements, but leading with curiosity helps us seek common ground and work toward collaborative solutions, and that’s the kind of healing that our political discourse needs right now. 

The good news is that infusing curiosity into our civic discourse doesn’t take expertise or research — it is a practice that all of us can engage in at any moment. It just takes a commitment to honesty and humility. 

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