Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine


Why listening well can make disagreements less damaging

Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

by Guy Itzchakov + BIO





Offering undivided attention and curiosity not only lowers the temperature of a conversation but can change its outcome

When you get involved in a heated disagreement, perhaps in favour of your political party or against a campaign you oppose, you probably feel a strong desire to show the other person that you are right and to change their mind. So, the most important thing is to make clear arguments, speak confidently, and steer the conversation, right? Well, not necessarily.

During disagreements, people tend to listen quite poorly to each other. Think of your most recent or meaningful disagreement: it’s likely that while you were speaking, your conversation partner was busy thinking about how to counterargue rather than genuinely trying to grasp your point of view (and might it be that you did the same?) In such conversations, it often feels like people are talking past each other, their opposing views clashing without real understanding. This process generates defensiveness and results in arguments, from which each person leaves feeling more confident about their initial attitude, a phenomenon called the ‘boomerang effect’. In other words, arguing often just further entrenches people where they started.

When left unaddressed or managed badly, as they so often are, disagreements like these can strain personal relationships and contribute to growing divides in public discourse. For example, it’s well reported that political polarisation in the United States has intensified over the years, with 28 per cent of Americans in 2022 naming it a top issue facing the country. Simultaneously, the percentage of Americans engaging with individuals from the opposing party has significantly declined. Compounding the issue, many Americans exclusively consume news or information from sources that reinforce their existing political beliefs, deepening disagreements about the fundamental facts surrounding numerous political issues.

As a researcher who has studied interpersonal listening for more than a decade, I am interested in what is possible when, rather than simply counterarguing with a person one disagrees with, one conversation partner responds by giving the other conversation partner undivided attention. My research suggests that if high-quality listening is deliberately substituted for a rush to defend your own perspective and strike back, it could lead to more positive, less polarising results.

When I say high-quality listening, I mean listening that includes several key features: attention, as exhibited by, for example, maintaining eye contact and avoiding distractions like our smartphones; comprehension, which one might show by paraphrasing the speaker’s message to ensure understanding (and identify missed points); and positive intention, or adopting a nonjudgmental attitude toward the speaker. Demonstrating these features of high-quality listening does not mean you need to agree with the speaker’s perspective. Instead, it means listening with an awareness and acceptance that the speaker is free to speak their mind.

Speakers who receive high-quality listening report greater clarity about their own attitudes

This open and nonjudgmental approach can also involve asking questions while the other person is speaking, rather than making pronouncements. For example, instead of saying: ‘I think that your candidate’s economic agenda will damage our country’, a good listener might ask: ‘How do you think your candidate’s economic agenda will affect our country?’ Regardless of the answer, this can make a speaker feel less defensive than if they are immediately challenged, and they may reciprocate by listening better themselves.

There is good reason to believe that high-quality listening can constructively influence a person’s attitudes about controversial issues. My previous work on listening suggests that when speakers experience high-quality listening, their attitudes often become less extreme and less prejudiced. Attitudes can also become more complex. For example, in one experiment, business school undergraduates disclosed their attitudes about their ability to become managers in the future. When they received high-quality listening from their conversation partner, they were more inclined to acknowledge their weaknesses as well as their strengths, compared with when they conversed with a moderate or poor listener. Additional work found that speakers who receive high-quality listening report greater clarity about their own attitudes.

However, none of these previous studies involved a disagreement between the listener and the speaker. Hence, I and my colleagues Netta Weinstein, Mark Leary, Dvori Saluk and Moty Amar decided to test whether high-quality listening can make a speaker’s attitude less extreme, even when the listener holds an opposing attitude.

We reasoned that when someone speaks their mind to a high-quality listener, rather than a defensive or inattentive one, they should feel a greater sense of social connection and comfort with the listener – what psychologists have called ‘positivity resonance’. When speakers feel this positivity resonance with a listener, they should then be able to introspect about their own attitude in a relatively open-minded manner – to seek self-insight. This process is likely to make the speaker’s attitude less extreme or one-sided, as it could increase their awareness of different aspects of their initial attitude as well as the possibility that the listener’s attitude could have merit as well.

This process is essentially the opposite of what occurs during destructive disagreements, in which each person feels that their freedom to hold an attitude is threatened and so scrambles to defend it (as posited by psychological reactance theory). The sense of threat can lead to greater social distance from the other party and increased closed-mindedness, which focuses the speaker to think of arguments that support their own view, and leads to a more extreme and one-sided attitude. In short, we propose that high-quality listening can serve as a remedy for this process.

These effects on attitude occurred without any persuasion attempt from the listeners

Our expectations gained support from a series of experiments (conducted in Israel between 2020 and 2023) that involved varied setups and subjects of discussion. For instance, in one study, undergraduate students read about the 2020 peace agreement between Israel and Sudan, and rated their attitude to a related immigration issue. Subsequently, they conversed over Zoom with a research assistant who was said to hold an opposing attitude. After initially posing questions about a participant’s attitude, the research assistant eventually transitioned into a listener role – refraining from counterarguing during the 10-minute conversation. In one experimental condition, the listener engaged in high-quality listening, having been trained to provide consistent eye contact, open body language, and verbal expressions of interest and understanding. In another condition, the listener provided lower-quality listening: minimal nonverbal feedback, occasional distractions, and neutral behaviour. In other studies, participants discussed their attitudes on COVID-19 vaccination cards or universal basic income.

Our results showed that high-quality listeners facilitated positivity resonance in speakers, as indicated by speakers’ ratings of social connection and comfort, which motivated speakers to seek (and gain) self-insight. This interplay between positivity resonance and self-insight contributed to an effect of listening on attitudes: the speakers’ attitudes became less extreme/one-sided, as evidenced by moving partway from one end of the rating scale toward the midpoint. Moreover, speakers in the high-quality listening condition consistently reported that a change in their attitude had occurred and rated it as more similar to the listeners’ attitude than those in the lower-quality listening condition. Note that the participants, or speakers, did not alter their attitudes to match those of their listeners precisely. Instead, receiving high-quality listening led the speakers to recognise more similarities between their attitudes and those of their listeners, compared with speakers in the lower-quality listening condition. Interestingly, these effects on attitude occurred without any persuasion attempt from the listeners.

This research reveals the power of good listening in smoothing out disagreements. When people engage in high-quality listening, it can create a sense of connection and comfort for the speaker. This, in turn, seems to prompt speakers to think more deeply about their perspective, resulting in a noticeable reduction in attitude differences. Our findings underscore how essential good listening is for building bridges and fostering positive interactions, especially when people disagree.

Our work is consistent with what’s known about a therapeutic process called motivational interviewing. This is a counselling approach that centres on helping individuals explore and resolve ambivalence toward behavioural change. At its core, motivational interviewing emphasises the importance of empathetic listening and fostering a collaborative, nonjudgmental atmosphere. Practitioners listen with curiosity, seeking to understand someone’s perspectives, values and goals. The approach recognises that people are more likely to embrace positive change when they feel heard and understood.

A future with more productive conversations about controversial issues will require a concerted effort to prioritise and enhance high-quality listening. That will involve fostering a culture in which respect for diverse perspectives is paramount. Initiatives such as educational programmes, workshops and public forums could provide practical tools to hone listening skills. If the principles of high-quality listening were incorporated more frequently into publicly broadcast conversations, that could set a positive example for the broader community. Emphasising the value of seeking to understand before being understood can transform conversations into genuine exchanges of ideas rather than mere clashes of opinion.

Any of us can also make high-quality listening a personal commitment and skill, starting now. Listening is like a muscle that requires training. The good news, however, is that listening is highly trainable. The first step to becoming a better listener is to set it as a goal for yourself – and to not be intimidated if you realise that listening well during a disagreement might take more effort than you thought.

This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon+Psyche from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon+Psyche are not involved in editorial decision-making.





19 February 2024