Oprah and the empathy question

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On 60 Minutes last Sunday night, television icon Oprah Winfrey sat at a table with fourteen American voters—seven who voted for Trump, seven who didn't—and asked questions in her candid, probing style. She began with a straightforward query, "How do you think Donald Trump is doing as president?"

One man replied: "I love it. Every day I love him more and more." A woman quickly countered, "I feel like he's a horrible president and he's divided our nation more than it's ever been."

Later Winfrey asked, "How many people say we're a divided country?" Everyone raised a hand. Later in the broadcast, people expressed concern that we're headed toward a civil war. They weren't kidding.

While the 15-minute segment was fascinating for its frank and passionate conversation, I wondered how much I could learn from yet another set of he said-she said voters who seem to spout the same polarized views we get from cable news channels and op-ed pages. 

The questions and answers went along in a fairly predictable way, until Winfrey asked this question, "What one word would you use to describe a Trump voter?"

The answers were pointed. People—on both sides—described Trump supporters as angry, frustrated, or fed up. This was a fairly consistent theme. There were a few outliers. One person said misinformed. Another voter said forgotten. Finally, one woman offered a single word that flipped an empathy switch for me. She said she felt Trump voters were wounded.  

I immediately wanted to know more. How were they wounded? What do they need? How can I help them? Why did Trump make them feel better?

Winfrey's persistent questioning prompted an answer that opened a floodgate of questions for me. It didn't matter whether Trump supporters were truly wounded or not. What mattered was that I found an opening to ask questions of my own that might elicit answers I could understand.

Because, like Winfrey, to find answers, you sometimes have to ask a lot of questions. In sequence. Persistently. With genuine care and curiosity. Because it may not be the answer to the first question or the second question, or the eighth question that provides the insights you need. You need to keep asking until you find responses that resonate and make you want to learn more. Then drill down again.

We don't know how the flow of the 60 Minutes interview actually went and which questions were asked in which order. The magic of the segment's structure may have been created in the editing room. Still, the piece gave a loose template for how to get from point A to point B to point Q in a conversation. People at the table, while frustrated with one another with a visible irritation at times, stayed in the discussion. No one stormed out and left. They kept talking by answering questions.

I've recently found myself trying harder to find the right words to ask better questions. It seems to hinge on both the art and science of knowing when to proceed gently and broadly and when to be incisive and bold. Professional journalists have perfected these approaches in journalism school. Though some bring an added, innate humanity to their questioning, which makes us trust them more. 

Journalist Frank Sesno's book Ask More: The power of questions to open doors, uncover solutions, and spark change explores how to handle different type of questions, depending on your intent, for example, diagnostic, strategic, or confrontational questions. He has an entire chapter dedicated to empathy questions. To establish an empathetic connection, he advises starting with general, open-ended questions, then listening carefully and responding with more targeted questions that help you truly step into someone else's shoes—to literally try and feel as they do. He cites Walt Whitman as pinpointing the essence of this approach: "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person."

Winfrey is a master at empathetic questioning, and it showed in the excellent 60 Minutes piece. She kept a roomful of fiercely opposed people talking to one another by using her warm, insightful, and conversational style. Though I found one thing lacking in the 60 Minutes piece. I wish we'd heard the answer to this question, "What one word would you use to describe a Hillary voter?" I would have loved to hear how the other side is perceived. I'd also like to know this answer, "What one word would you use to describe people who didn't vote at all?" Non-voters were as pivotal a cohort as any in the last presidential election. Maybe these questions were asked but didn't make the final cut. Regardless, it was a missed opportunity for a more balanced piece.

So what are the questions we should be asking each other now? It's the next one, and the next one, and the one after that. But it probably starts with, "How are you feeling about what's going on in America these days?" It's not accusatory. It's not about Trump. It's about us. All of us. Then listen, hard. Reflect. Take a deep breath and ask another question.