This is the topic of the first episode of a new podcast The Arthur Brooks Show. The half hour episode examines the challenge of navigating difficult conversations with perspectives from five guests:
- Vaile Wright, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association;
- John Williams, a former masters student of Brooks;
- Gregory Trevors, a social psychologist at University of South Carolina interested in epistemic cognition, emotion, misconceptions and knowledge revision; and
- Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge, good friends with opposing political passions that delivered a TEDx talk together in July 2017.
There are no shortage of insights and nuggets of advice throughout this well produced new arrival to the world of podcasting. Bravo Arthur and welcome to the block. Here are few choice snippets and ideas from the conversation, some paraphrased, some synthesised.
There is a lot of divisiveness in the US right now, and it extends to family and friends as well. The majority of people report this is the lowest point in the nation’s history that they can remember. And this spans across generations, people who have lived through the second world war, the Vietnam war and 9/11. There is something dramatically different about the way we are talking now. The way that social media and the 24 hour news cycle perpetuates a level of divisiveness that you cannot get away from.
When you are on an issue that is important to someone, that they hold true to their heart, something they consider is part of them, what defines them, it can drive a wedge. Sometimes we get into a political conversation and all of a sudden the emotions start, and I’m right, and I’m going to be right no matter what. And we stop thinking about the other person as a person. And we are trying to score points rather than build relationships.
Do most people change their minds when presented with new credible information?
Yes, most of the time we do. Corrections for the most part work. People change their minds how we expect them to. However, with contentious issues, updating that one fact does not lead to abandoning the deeper belief or attitude. In fact, it can lead to doubling down on it, and raising another argument to support the underlying belief.
When does offering corrections go wrong?
It happens when there is a clash between a person’s sense of who they are, what they believe to be true, and the correction. When the correction challenges a concept that is tangentially linked to a persons identity, they will look for a way to protect their identity from the challenge. For example, if I believe I am a healthy eater, and you are telling me genetically modified food is very healthy, which I do not believe is true, this belief may become even stronger.
What should we avoid doing when arguing with someone we are trying to persuade?
We need to avoid threatening their sense of self. Telling someone straight up they are wrong and here is why, is often the trigger. It can make someone feel threatened, angry, anxious and humiliated. People want to feel that they are morally adequate, that they are good competent people. It is these negative emotions we need to avoid. They are related to beliefs and values about oneself, and in this sense they are moral emotions.
The emotions that you want to try and activate are the epistemic emotions. You want people to feel surprised and curious. It is OK for them to feel confused sometimes if it is done in moderation.
What should we do if we choose to pursue a contentious issue?
You want to express sincere curiosity — Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Show that you are interested in what they have to say, and why they are saying it. There is usually a story behind it. Probe a little more. So, you get to hear what they have to say, and then they feel heard. They get to express their thinking a little bit more.
Then, if you want to continue, find a way to reframe the discussion around shared values, acknowledge the point of difference and then treat the conversation as a quest to find a solution that best supports those shared values.