The contrast with the other conversations was clear. People who get stuck, they collapse into negativity. Everything the other person says is wrong and stupid. Its an emotional collapse and a cognitive collapse because they stop being able to process anything that the other person is saying.
Is this determined by the temperament of the people involved? Or is something else at work, something that could be induced in stressed out Americans?
One condition that matters is subtle but logical: It turns out that when people build up even a small buffer of goodwill, their conversations go much better. Specifically, people need to have about three moments of positive feelings for every one moment of negativity. (The marriage expert John Gottman has found that married couples need a slightly higher ratio of about five good moments for every bad one more evidence that marriage is harder than politics.)
This 3:1 ratio is the first critical lesson in inducing complexity: goodwill is the gateway drug for listening. People need to have some balance of experience, of feeling like theyre heard, [to be told] thats an interesting point they made, Coleman says. Then they stay in the more complex, nuanced place.
Looping for understanding
So complexity can be cultivated. But how do you generate goodwill in a debate about abortion with a stranger who vehemently disagrees with you?
Gary Friedman has mediated more than 2,000 conflicts in his career. To create goodwill, Friedman practices a strategy called looping for understanding. You distill the essence of what the other person is saying, and then play it back to them. Theres no need to agree with the person or even to pretend to like them. The point is not to convince, nor to contradict, nor to take exception to, nor explain away, as Friedman writes in Challenging Conflict, which he co-authored. The point is to understand.
We are wrong more often than we think. To understand what someone really means requires a lot of double-checking. It seems obvious, a bit contrived, but it works like magic. Training with Friedman and a dozen other mediators earlier this year, I practiced looping and being looped, over and over again. I was humbled by how often I thought Id understood the person, but had missed some important nuance.
Later, as an experiment, I tried looping my 11-year-old son when he complained about having to go to bed. Youre really frustrated that you cant stay up later, I told him. He went to bed.
Using techniques like looping to build goodwill is helpful and important in our own conversations, but it cant compete with the impact of cable news and talk radio. Is there a way to induce complexity at scale, regardless of how much goodwill we each can generate?
You can handle the truth
Back at the Difficult Conversations Lab, researchers tried another experiment. Before participants met, they were given one of two versions of an article to read about a controversial issue such as immigration.
One version laid out both sides of the issue, for and against immigration. The other contained the same information, but included more complexity, offering a spectrum of opinions. It read less like a traditional news story and more like an anthropologists field notes.
Psychologists call this process priming preparing participants to think in certain ways. The idea here was to prime one set of participants for complexity.
And it worked.
Again and again, people who read the more complicated article went on to have richer conversations. They asked more questions, proposed higher quality ideas and left the lab more satisfied with their conversations.
They dont solve the debate, Coleman says, but they do have a more nuanced understanding and more willingness to continue the conversation. Complexity is contagious.
The lesson for journalists like me was clear: embrace complexity. Highlight nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. For one thing, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate version of reality. It also increases the odds that new information will be taken seriously.
But journalists almost always do the opposite. Reporters cut the quotes that dont fit the narrative, or our editor cuts them for us. We look for coherence, which is tidy and natural.
But in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice. Tidy narratives gently warp reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil. Then our audiences soothe themselves with the knowledge that all Republicans are racist rednecks or all Democrats are precious snowflakes who hate America.
In reality, racist beliefs cross party boundaries. One in four supporters of Hillary Clinton in 2016 believed black people were lazier than white people. That doesnt mean racism didnt influence the election, only that it interacted with other forces, in many ways, in all kinds of people.
In other words: its complicated.
- Reporting for this story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network
- This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the worlds most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at [email protected]