Whether it’s warring spouses, neighbourly disputes or broken friendships, it seems that disagreement followed by conflict is almost inevitable whenever people spend enough time together. And the more important the relationship, the more devastating that conflict can be. However, I hope to convince you that, while disagreement might be inevitable, there are ways you can take control to avoid escalation and bring out the best in you and the other person.
Psychologists have been studying conflict for many decades. But they’ve focused almost exclusively on what I call ‘structural’ variables – these are the contextual parameters that define the scope of a conversation before it begins, such as people’s prior beliefs about the topic, and who it is they’re talking to. These factors can certainly have a powerful impact on our disagreements, and this past work has shown ways to intervene to reduce conflict.
For example, if people hold extreme views, this can magnify their disagreements; likewise if they consider those they disagree with to be selfish, or incompetent, or even sub-human. Based on this, psychologists have proposed that, if we can soften people’s beliefs, we might affect their downstream behaviour, thus reducing conflict. Similarly, other research has looked at the choices people make about whom they trust to converse with. From this work, some experts have proposed that, by encouraging greater communication between diverse groups, people will break out of their ‘echo chambers’ and learn more from one another.
In reality, it can sometimes feel as though these structural variables – whom you’re talking to and what you’re disagreeing about – align in such a way that productive conversation is simply impossible. But what I think the dominant structural perspective has missed is that the choices we make within a conversation also matter, a lot. This is important because in many of our relationships – at home, at work, in our community – we don’t have much choice about whom we talk to, or what we disagree about. The good news is that, in research I’ve conducted with others, we’ve found that – even holding constant the issue at hand, and the person you’re disagreeing with – there are word choices you can make that will help maintain the relationship, increase your own persuasiveness, and learn more about the other person’s point of view.
Let me give you some examples to show what I mean. These arguments were written by participants in a study we ran, which involved them discussing a controversial policy issue with someone they disagreed with. We chose a highly divisive and fraught policy issue to show that, even here, the difference between being willing to talk, and being closed to discussion, can be very significant. In this case, they were responding to the question: ‘Has the public reaction to recent confrontations between police and minority crime suspects been overblown?’
In a disagreement, explaining language, such as ‘because’ and ‘therefore’, can be seen as condescending. These kinds of assumptions about the world show a lack of intellectual humility
First, here’s an initial statement that we gave our participants to read, which was written by someone supportive of the protests and other public reactions:
The public reaction has not been overblown, if anything it is severely muted. Recent confrontations are simply making visible issues that have existed for a very long time. Lynchings and killings of minorities have happened throughout American history. However, now we have proof in real time through cellphone videos and Facebook Live. There are real issues between police and the communities they serve that are only being addressed because of the attention being paid through Black Lives Matter and other protests.
Now, before you read on, imagine how someone more sceptical of the protest movement might respond to this first statement. And if you disagreed with this initial statement yourself, think about how you would have responded. We showed this initial statement, and others like it, to hundreds of people, and asked them to respond. Here are two contrasting responses written by two of our participants – I focus on these, not to lend credence to their perspective, but because they provide a useful and striking contrast in their choice of language. Take a look and see if you can notice any important differences in style:
Response 1: ‘I understand what you are saying. There probably is some truth to the fact that these issues have been hidden for a long time. However, coming from St Louis and witnessing the Ferguson riots, I can also see how things can be blown out of proportion and make people feel that it is worse than it is. I agree real problems exist, but possibly sometimes attention is drawn in the wrong places.’
Response 2: ‘Over-reacting to police confrontations can be deadly to the public in general. When animosity towards the police rises, as it has in Chicago, police do not feel safe, going into the ghetto neighbourhoods. Therefore, those people, in those neighbourhoods, literally, have to fend for themselves, because if they need the police and call for their help, the police can’t help those in need there, because they will likely be shot at themselves.’
I find the contrast between these two responses fascinating for a few reasons. First, both these responders had the exact same position on the issue – that is, they were both far more sceptical of the protest movement than the person who made the initial statement. Second, they were both responding to the exact same piece of text. In other words, some of the main structural variables in this disagreement were identical. Nonetheless, what you might have noticed is that these two responding participants adopted very different conversational styles. In fact, we recruited participants online to score such responses for their ‘receptiveness to opposing views’, based on a scale developed by my colleague Julia Minson and others. The scores they gave for the two examples above are revealing – they rated the first response as one of the most receptive in our entire dataset, while rating the second as one of the least receptive. Hopefully you also agree that the first response was a more productive approach to the disagreement. But why?
If you look closely, in the first response you will notice a few essential features of productive disagreement. First, let’s consider acknowledgement. People often look for signs that their conversation partner is listening and understanding. Making an effort to acknowledge the other person’s view is an easy way to demonstrate that you’re listening, by saying such things as ‘I understand’ or ‘I see your point.’ Another receptive feature is hedging. If you are going to make a claim, you can soften or qualify it with a hedge, by adding ‘probably’ or ‘sometimes’ or ‘maybe’, rather than talking in absolutes. This conveys your intellectual humility, which will make it easier to find common ground with the other person. A third feature is agreement. Humans have so much in common, but those things we agree on can be hard to notice when we are focused on the things we don’t agree on. In an argument, there is always something you have in common, and it’s helpful to state that explicitly. The first response included all three of these conversational features.
In contrast, why does the second response seem so unreceptive? It’s useful to think in terms of errors of omission (the things we should say but that we don’t) and errors of commission (the things we shouldn’t say but that we do). The person who wrote the second response made both kinds of errors. First, notice that Response 2 used none of the receptive features that were in Response 1. At the same time, they also included some unreceptive features. They used negations, such as ‘not’ or ‘cannot’ (‘never’ would be another example), all of which shut down discussion and come across as contradictory. This person also used lots of explaining language, such as ‘because’ and ‘therefore’. In a disagreement, these kinds of assumptions about the world can be seen as condescending, and they show a lack of intellectual humility.
Similar to eating sugary food or staying up late, the thrill of speaking your mind is immediate, but the long-term costs to the relationship are obscured
Conversation is complex, and being receptive involves a combination of all of these small choices added up over time. And almost every sentence in a conversation can be modulated to be more or less receptive. Recently we developed a machine learning algorithm (available online as part of the ‘politeness’ R package) that can read these features from text, and score a response for receptiveness. We’ve found that the effects of receptiveness are consistent for people on both sides of the debate around protests over police conduct, and indeed for people on both sides of other highly controversial issues, as well. In fact, we’ve since used this tool to analyse thousands of conversations in all kinds of contexts where people are trying to be productive mid-disagreement.
One domain we looked at is online education, designed to help students from all walks of life learn from one another, and share their diverse views. Here we found that, when students wrote more receptively, they received more receptive comments from students who disagreed with them. We’ve seen a similar dynamic in another globally distributed team – the editors of Wikipedia. These editors have a wildly diverse set of perspectives, which is part of why it works so well as a group enterprise, but things can also often get out of hand. Crucially, we found that editors who are more receptive are less likely to receive personal attacks from their fellow editors later on. Together, these results show that the most immediate outcome of choosing to be receptive is that it is returned in kind. Over time, people who are receptive create a safe space for respectful disagreement and mutual understanding.
To help people who might want to learn to be more receptive, my colleagues and I have developed the following ‘receptiveness recipe’ based on our research. Think about how you might follow some of these guidelines the next time you find yourself in a disagreement:
- Actively acknowledge the other’s perspective using terms such as ‘I understand that…,’; ‘I see your point’; or ‘What I think you are saying is…’
- Affirm the other person’s views by highlighting areas of agreement, no matter how small or obvious. For example, say ‘I agree that…’ or ‘You’re right about…’
- Hedge your claims: say ‘I think it’s possible’ rather than ‘This will happen because…’ (Note: you can soften your own beliefs, but don’t minimise values! Avoid words such as ‘just’, ‘simply’ or ‘only’.)
- Phrase your arguments in positive rather than negative terms. Say ‘I think it’s helpful to maintain a social distance’ rather than ‘You should not be socialising right now.’
- Share your personal experiences – especially involving vulnerability – and this will encourage mutual respect. In contrast, reciting explanations or facts you’ve learned can sound argumentative and condescending.
You might think that it is more authentic to state your disagreements boldly. But, in many ways, if you are an open-minded person who is prepared to listen, then reacting in a bold and blunt fashion could be misleading and inauthentic – it will fail to convey your true receptiveness and humility. People speak to be heard, and they often find it hard to know if others are listening. If you don’t take the time to demonstrate with your own words that you’re listening, you will leave room to be misinterpreted by others, and your conversation can descend further down the conflict spiral. In some ways, you can think of arguing as a temptation. Similar to eating sugary food or staying up late, the thrill of speaking your mind is immediate, but the long-term costs to the relationship are obscured.
You might also think that being receptive is too hard to pull off in the heat of the moment. That might be true at first, but like any skill, it will become easier with practice. Our research shows that people who learn about the receptiveness recipe before a difficult conversation end up seeming more receptive to their counterparts, more trustworthy – and more persuasive, too. I hope you’ll find it useful in your next argument. Always consider the word choices you make in a conversation, and whether you can find room to be more receptive, even if – especially if – the stakes of the disagreement are high.