How to understand the other side: Tips from user research

Our level of civic discourse right now is egregiously bad, embarrassing really. Instead of having respectful, constructive debates at a time when we need them desperately, we’re lobbing insults, clinging to our own partisan versions of “facts,” and assuming the worst of the other side: They’re dumb. They’re bigoted. They’re whiny. They’re weak. They’re liars.

From Facebook to the Senate floor, we are being straight up rude, and it’s not getting us anywhere.

I propose that we take a deep breath and try another approach: one where we seek to understand what’s going on in the minds of people across the political divide. To be clear, this is not advice on how to change people’s minds, but how to get inside them. I’ve been studying human empathy for the better part of a decade, first as a graduate student of psychology and neuroscience at Harvard, and now as a user research and insights consultant. This work has given me a skill set I’ve become extremely grateful for over the past year: it allows me to start to understand people very different from myself.

And as I sit, daily, pouring over the news and social media, watching as people (myself included) try and fail to understand what in the hell is going on in the minds of others, I can’t help but think that the tools of my trade could benefit us all.

To that end, I offer you some tips on how to see where your friends and countrymen are coming from, how to see what’s motivating the beliefs with which you so rabidly disagree. Here’s my best professional advice for how to use design thinking and qualitative research techniques to understand the other side.

Problem: You find yourself aghast, without words, struggling to see a shred of truth or reason in what this person is saying.

Solution: Seek to be surprised

A key element of any kind of research is seeking out information that surprises you instead of just focusing on information that reinforces your current beliefs (for example, that this person must be a jerk; that what he’s saying is likely false).

I find that the same approach is effective when starting a conversation (or news article or social media post) with someone I’ll likely disagree. Don’t assume that you know what they’re going to say. Look for new information counter to your current beliefs, hypotheses, or intuitions.

A word of warning: the hardest thing about seeking to be surprised is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that you, too, have blindspots and biases. I urge you: just accept it and keep listening anyway.

Problem: You still don’t get it. This person is nuts.

Solution: Listen more than you talk

During interviews, skilled qualitative researchers do very little speaking. Instead, they ask broad, open questions that invite people to share their thoughts, and then sit back and take it all in.

If you’re struggling to get inside the head of the person you’re talking to, I recommend that you do the same. Try punctuating the conversation with short, non-aggressive questions like, “why?,” “how so?,” “tell me more,” “help me understand…,” “can you give me example?” As you probe deeper, try to ask follow-ups that will get them to move past simply re-stating the party line and into their reasons for supporting it.

It’s less satisfying than smugly rattling off our own opinions, but ultimately, by understanding where they’re coming from, we’ll not only be better friends and neighbors, we’ll also be better positioned to find common ground and offer more effective arguments.

Problem: The person you’re trying to understand won’t engage with you.

Solution : Build rapport, don’t react

In order for an interview or survey to be successful, you also have to warm people up. You have to make the person you’re talking to feel comfortable and heard. If you dive right into the hard or sensitive questions, they’re going to clam up.

Likewise, if you ask questions (especially on the topic of politics) with any hint of accusation or aggression, they’re going to shut down. No one wants to talk to someone who is waiting to bite their head off. If you’re genuinely trying to start a dialogue, do so with kindness.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: when I’m training my clients on how to conduct interviews, we do a lot of practice on being non-reactive and nonjudgmental. When a participant (or in our case, someone with different political beliefs) says something that catches you off guard, no matter how shocked you are, you must keep your composure. Don’t react. Don’t judge. Continue to try to understand.


When you find yourself aghast, without words, struggling to see a shred of truth or reason in what someone else is saying:

  • Seek to be surprised

When you still think this is a certifiable crazy person:

  • Listen more than you talk

And when the person you’re trying to understand is brushing you off:

  • Build rapport, don’t react

Regardless of your political opinions, I think we can all agree that we’re nearing a communication crisis. Hostile accusations and derogatory comments — especially in the form of memes, gifs, and emojis — have no place in a serious, empathic debate. They may make us feel clever or funny, but they will never help us understand. Instead of being small-minded, be big-hearted, and insist that any conversations you have are civil, respectful, constructive, and genuine.

If you need some inspiration, Van Jones did a great series called “Messy Truth” during the election, where he visited the homes of people he disagreed with to try to understand where they were coming from. Try watching the videos and keep an eye out for when he is (and isn’t) using the techniques above.