Sunday, July 1, 2018

How to have difficult conversations: Introduce complexity

In a hard-to-find windowless room at Columbia University, there is something called a Difficult Conversations Laboratory. [Psychologist Peter] Coleman and colleagues use the lab to study real-life conflict in a controlled setting...

Over the past decade, the Difficult Conversations Lab and its sister labs around the world have hosted and recorded close to 500 contentious encounters. They intentionally generate the kind of discomfort that most people spend all of Thanksgiving trying to avoid. To do this, the researchers first survey participants to learn their views on a few polarizing issues, such as abortion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then they match each person with someone who strongly disagrees.

When the two participants meet, they are asked to spend 20 minutes crafting a statement on the contentious subject — one that they could in theory both agree to make public with their names attached. ...

Over time, the researchers noticed a key difference between the terrible and non-terrible conversations: The better conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war. They were more complex.

But could that complexity be artificially induced? Was there a way to cultivate better conversations? To find out, the researchers started giving the participants something to read before they met — a short article on another polarizing issue. One version of the article laid out both sides of a given controversy, similar to a traditional news story–arguing the case in favor of gun rights, for example, followed by the case for gun control.

The alternate version contained all the same information — written in a different way. That article emphasized the complexity of the gun debate, rather than describing it as a binary issue. So the author explained many different points of view, with more nuance and compassion. It read less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes. ...

It turns out that the pre-conversation reading mattered: in the difficult conversations that followed, people who had read the more simplistic article tended to get stuck in negativity. But those who had read the more complex articles did not. ...

The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.

There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. ... Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose. ...

“The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension,” Coleman writes, “by seeking coherence through simplification.” Tidy narratives succumb to this urge to simplify, gently warping reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil. We soothe ourselves with the knowledge that all Republicans are racist rednecks — or all Democrats are precious snowflakes who hate America. ...

Here are some specific questions that McCulloch and other mediators I interviewed suggested that reporters (or anyone) could ask to get underneath the usual talking points:
  • What is oversimplified about this issue?
  • How has this conflict affected your life?
  • What do you think the other side wants?
  • What’s the question nobody is asking?
  • What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?
 --Amanda Ripley, Solutions Journalism Network, on healing America through complexity. HT: SC