This Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment, “Divided”, hosted by Oprah Winfrey, illustrated what’s possible when you bring people together in a focus group’s safe and organized environment to express their opinions. What at first would have appeared to be an exercise in futility led to something quite remarkable and telling.
For her debut assignment, 60 Minutes sent Oprah to the politically pivotal state of Michigan to discuss with a focus group of 14 Americans – seven of whom voted for Trump and seven of whom voted otherwise – how Trump is doing so far.
“We wanted to know if the divide was still as deep and bitter as before,” Oprah said in her introduction to the segment.
The focus group included men and women with diverse backgrounds, including a farmer, a drug counselor, a speech therapist, a former GM factory worker, and a sales manager.
Oprah kicked off the discussion with a straightforward enough but very open-ended question: How is Trump doing?
Not surprisingly, the Trump voters thought he was doing great (even as a few of them admitted to not liking his Tweeting habits) while those who did not vote for Trump thought he was doing horribly.
The three-hour conversation, boiled down to a 15-minute TV segment, went on to cover the Russia investigation, the recent violent death of a young woman at white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, VA, and, of course, Tweeting.
The not-so-civilized discussion transpired as one would have expected, with the people who voted for Trump supporting most of his actions and those who didn’t denouncing them.
However, as it went on, one could see the walls of division starting to crumble via honest dialogue and the discovery of small pieces of real estate, however tiny, where both sides could stand together on common ground.
“Do conversations like this matter?” Winfrey asked Frank Luntz a pioneer in the qualitative market research industry, in a one-on-one interview toward the end of the segment.
“Conversations like what happened last night stopped happening in this country more than a year ago, when it became dangerous to tell people in the so-called “fly-over” states that you supported Hillary Clinton,” Luntz said. “When it became dangerous to tell people in New York or LA that you supported Donald Trump. And so we’ve just stopped talking politics.”
As the table discussion wound down, Oprah asked the group for their thoughts on the future. What does the future hold: more division, or more coming together?
“I’m fearing civil war,” one woman said as the others nodded in agreement.
“We do not understand each other, and when we’re talking, we’re talking different languages and we’re not actually listening and understanding each other and that’s causing the divide,” another woman said.
And then, finally, they arrived at the one point that they ALL agreed on: these conversations are helpful and need to be happening more, especially in Washington.
“Politicians need to talk to each other. They need to cross the aisle and they need to do what we sent them there to do,” one participant said.
“I’m hopeful for the future and that we can do that – yes,” another participant added. “Just look around this table and what we’ve done here tonight. If people just get a little common sense, settle down a little bit, and start talking things out, we can work things out.”
In her closing salvo, Oprah said the conversation later moved to a nearby restaurant, where it continued late into the night, and that many of the focus group members have since kept in touch both online and in person, with several attending a town hall meeting together. Also – just last week, five people from the group went to a shooting range to try to understand each other’s views on gun rights.
How’s that for something that started off divisive and grew into something informative and unifying?
This illustrates the power of focused discussion and shows how allowing people to express their true feelings with impunity and safety, and asking the right kinds of questions, can lead to very powerful insights — insights that can transform a business and even a country.