When it comes to conflict, most of us just want to shut it down. But researchers are increasingly finding there’s a better way to handle disputes. This week, we kick off our new Relationships 2.0 series by asking: what if we stop trying to eliminate conflict and instead ask how can we do conflict better?
You can find read more of the work of Julia Minson at her website.
For more on conflict resolution, listen to our episode on how we grapple with contradictions.
Toward a Psychology of Attitude Conflict, by Julia A. Minson and Charles A. Dorison, Current Opinion in Psychology, 2022.
Receptiveness to Opposing Views: Conceptualization and Integrative Review, by Julia A. Minson and Frances S. Chen, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2021.
Conversational Receptiveness: Improving Engagement With Opposing Views, by Michael Yeomans et al., Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2020.
It Helps to Ask: The Cumulative Benefits of Asking Follow-Up Questions, by Michael Yeomans et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, 2019.
In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion, by Frances S. Chen et. al, Psychological Science, 2013.
Two to Tango: Effects of Collaboration and Disagreement on Dyadic Judgment, by Julia A. Minson, Varda Liberman, and Lee Ross, Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011.
Tell Me More: The Effects of Expressed Interest on Receptiveness During Dialog, by Frances S. Chen, Julia A. Minson, and Zakary L. Tormala, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2010.
Actual Versus Assumed Differences in Construal: “Naive Realism” in Intergroup Perception and Conflict, by Robert J. Robinson et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1995.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. No matter how hard we try to avoid them, conflicts are everywhere. Kids squabble over breakfast at the kitchen table. Colleagues bicker in a team meeting. Nations clash across the globe. For many of us, our first impulse when it comes to conflict is to ask, how can I shut it down? How can I resolve it? This impulse makes sense. Conflict is uncomfortable and unpleasant. It produces hurt and animosity. It can destroy relationships. But sometimes the roots of antagonism and anger are so deeply entrenched that avoiding conflict isn't possible and trying to reach a happy place of agreement and love isn't realistic. Increasingly, psychological research is taking a different approach to discord with profound implications for disputes big and small. This week on Hidden Brain, we kick off a series that we are calling Relationships 2.0. Today, what if we set aside the goal of eliminating conflict and instead ask, how can we do conflict better?Think back to the last time you found yourself in an argument with someone. It might have been over something trivial like a parking spot on a crowded street, or it might have been serious, like the best path forward for a company or a marriage. Unless you are a very special human being, you likely found yourself getting hot under the collar. You may have felt the other side was being unreasonable, perhaps deliberately so. At Harvard University, psychologist Julia Minson studies the psychology of disagreement. In recent years, she has developed some surprisingly simple but powerful techniques to help people trapped in conflict get unstuck. Julia Minson, welcome to Hidden Brain.Julia Minson:Thanks so much for having me.Shankar Vedantam:Julia. I want to take you back to some of your earliest observations about conflict, and they took place while you were ballroom dancing, especially when you observed what happened between dancers offstage. When and where was this, and what did you observe?Julia Minson:So I spent most of my teens and early 20s ballroom dancing, and you just see what happens behind the scenes.Shankar Vedantam:And what does happen behind the scenes?Julia Minson:Well, what happens behind the scenes is, people are practicing and looking like they're fabulously in love, and then the music stops and they break into an argument about, well, you were too fast, or you were too slow, or you were leaning or you were not leaning enough. And of course the other person then doesn't agree with the first person's characterization of what really happened and off they go.Shankar Vedantam:So I understand you had a recurrent conflict with your own dance partner, Ryan. At the time, he was your boyfriend, he's now your husband. What was that conflict about Julia?Julia Minson:So the conflict was something doesn't work, doesn't feel right in the dancing, and you're looking to diagnose the cause. And the cause is always the other person. And I started dancing much younger than he did, but he is just a more talented dancer. So between the two of us, I was more knowledgeable and he was just better. And we are not big screamers, we are more the silent brooders. But we've certainly had times where we stop speaking while we're dancing, but we are preparing for an important competition. So you still have to practice. So you're glaring at each other, not talking to each other, but you're still dancing together.Shankar Vedantam:So when you go to graduate school at Stanford University, you started working with the great psychologist Lee Ross, and one topic he studied was something called naive realism. We've talked about naive realism on the show before, but can you explain what it is and what it predicts happens to people who find themselves in conflict?Julia Minson:I think of naive realism as one of the most important ideas in social psychology. And it's basically the idea that people naively believe that their perceptions of reality and how things are and how things ought to be are realistic. So what I perceive is what's sort of really out there, and it's an idea that works just fine when we talk about our physical perceptions. So if I think something is a solid object, then I should treat it as such and not walk into it. But then people apply the same conviction to social reality, which is generally really, really messy and often hotly contested. So you take topics where reasonable people disagree and see things very, very differently, and yet both sides still think that they have an accurate conceptualization of how reality really is, right, like I basically get it, I see how things really are. And what people sort of forget is that what I see isn't exactly what's out there. It's what my brain allows me to see.Shankar Vedantam:So apply for me, if you will, the idea of naive realism to the disagreement that you would have with Ryan offstage before you would go on stage for your ballroom dancing sessions. What would go through your mind and what would go through his mind that made each of you think the way that I'm seeing the situation is the correct way to see the situation.Julia Minson:One thing that's really strange about ballroom dancing is that when you're dancing, you are in fact physically facing each other, which means you are literally looking at the world from opposite directions.Shankar Vedantam:Mm-hmm.Julia Minson:Right. So as you are sort of going around the room and there might be a mirror on the wall, when you see that mirror by definition it means that your partner's back is to the mirror and your partner could not see it. So 100% of the time you're actually making decisions about what looks right and what doesn't look right based on different information. But I think the problem sort of goes deeper than that, which is that whenever you disagree, and this was very much part of Lee Ross's theory, you have to make what he called attributions for disagreement. You have to explain to yourself why is it that we disagree? And it's basically a story you make up in your own mind about what is the cause of this disagreement.And the simplest version is we disagree because the other person is wrong. So in mine and Ryan's case, I had a lot more knowledge about the theory. I mean, you don't think of dancing as having theory, but it does because it's a lot of physics. And he was just better without necessarily being able to explain how he's doing what he's doing. And so when we disagreed, both of us had good reason to believe that we were right because I knew more and he would say, "well, look, this looks better and this feels better, and therefore it's right."Shankar Vedantam:So you and a grad school classmate, Frances Chen, came up with a way to get around the problem of naive realism, or at least you thought it would get around the problem of naive realism. And you based an experiment that you conducted on what scientists know about the bond between parents and children. Describe for me the study, Julia.Julia Minson:Yeah. So Frances came into the program very interested in developmental psychology and mothers and babies, and we were both sort of really fascinated with this problem of naive realism and conflict and disagreement. And she said eye contact is this really powerful mechanism that people have that increases bonding. So mothers and babies gaze into each other's eyes and it releases the hormone oxytocin, which is sort of the bonding hormone. When people are attracted to each other, they gaze into each other's eyes. So what if we got people to gaze into each other's eyes while they're discussing something that they disagree on? And would that trigger this biological liking that would then translate into a more sensible conversation?Shankar Vedantam:It made sense. So Julia and Frances ran some experiments to test if maintaining eye contact might reduce disagreement.Julia Minson:Well, we found that we were wrong, so that was weird, and it was exactly the opposite of what we had predicted. And people who were asked to make direct eye contact with somebody that they disagreed with actually ended up disagreeing even more than the people who were asked to look at the mouth or sort let their gaze wander.Shankar Vedantam:So I understand that you and Frances got together to talk about the results, and this was at your home at the time in Philadelphia. Paint me a scene of that conversation, Julia.Julia Minson:Yeah, so we were in our home. We had just had dinner and my husband was doing the dishes and we were still sitting there talking about the paper and I thought we had a really counterintuitive finding. It was exactly the opposite of what we had predicted. And I said, "great, we get to write this paper that's going to be really attention-grabbing about how eye contact is bad." And Frances really didn't like that framing because she had done a lot of work that showed the opposite and we started arguing about it. And Frances is a very, very sort of reasonable, soft spoken, mild mannered sort of woman. And she wouldn't budge and I wouldn't budge. And I was getting frustrated because we had this great result and it was so obvious that my framing was better. And eventually my husband literally interjected physically between us at the kitchen table with two bowls of ice cream and he said, "come on, settle down, take it easy."Shankar Vedantam:I love the fact that unlike most people who get in fights, you looked at what happened with curiosity and you asked if there were clues in the conversation to help you better understand the nature of discord. I'm wondering if you can tell me what you observed about the difference between disagreements and conflict.Julia Minson:I think the question you're asking about disagreement versus conflict is really important. And I think it's really important for organizations in particular because on one hand we often tell people that disagreement is good. We want to have a team of rivals and we want opposing perspectives and everybody should have different ideas about things. On the other hand, conflict feels bad. And so disagreement is I believe X and you believe Y.Shankar Vedantam:So in other words, I like vanilla, you like chocolate?Julia Minson:Yes, absolutely. Or I think this candidate will win and you think that candidate will win.Shankar Vedantam:And most of the time, presumably I'm okay with you believing X and me believing Y. It doesn't threaten me for you to be believing one thing while I believe the other.Julia Minson:Right. So you can think of lots of disagreements that are actually very enjoyable. So people love debating what the end of a particular TV show really meant, or which sports team should win the Super Bowl. So there's some disagreements that aren't just okay, they're actually fun.Shankar Vedantam:So what happens when disagreements spiral into conflict? What changes?Julia Minson:Really when we're talking about regular people in their regular lives, it's conflict about beliefs or conflict about attitudes. And the difference between disagreement and attitude conflict is that I believe X, you believe Y, and I'm not okay with you believing Y. I need to change your Y to be closer to my X.Shankar Vedantam:What do you think drives that? Why is it in some cases we are okay with you believing that team one is going to win the Super Bowl. I'm okay with team two winning the Super Bowl, but on other issues, I desperately need you to believe what I believe.Julia Minson:So I think there's three things that play into it. The first factor that of course matters is, is this an important issue? Is this something that I believe has important consequences? So for example, if you and I disagree about the importance of flossing your teeth, it's not as important as if we disagree about the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID 19. So one will give you cavities, the other might kill you. There is a big difference in importance. The second one is what we call interdependence. So does your attitude actually affect my outcomes? If we're a couple going out to dinner and I want Chinese and you want pizza, we're completely interdependent because we have to agree on where we're going. And so now if you add that up with importance, your preferences on it directly impact me. So think about buying a home in this neighborhood or that neighborhood. It's an important thing and we are stuck together in this house.Shankar Vedantam:Right, right. And what's the third factor?Julia Minson:The third factor is what we call evidentiary skew. And basically what that means is, do I believe that the evidence is overwhelmingly on my side? And so once you end up in a situation where the issue is important, we are interdependent in terms of our actions and beliefs, and both of us believe that there's more evidence on our side than the other side, then it's very hard to just let the other person keep believing whatever it is they want to.Shankar Vedantam:And I'm thinking about you and your colleague Frances, as you were sitting at your kitchen table arguing about the results of the paper.Julia Minson:Aha.Shankar Vedantam:In some ways it meets all three criteria.Julia Minson:It does. It's years of work and we're stuck together because we're coauthors and we both think we have the right answer.Shankar Vedantam:Much as two parties might disagree with each other but still need to coexist, people on different sides of a disagreement often still need to work together. A fighting couple might be raising children together. Israelis and Palestinians might share common ground when it comes to combating climate change. Republicans and Democrats who are at loggerheads on social spending might agree on the importance of imposing sanctions on a rogue nation. When we come back, techniques to keep conflict in one area from spiraling into places where we share common ground. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Julia Minson is a psychologist at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She studies the psychology of disagreement. Many experts in Julia's field of conflict resolution research ways to get people to come to agreement on contentious issues. Julia's research has taken a different tack. She has observed that in many cases, people on different sides of a contentious issue might never change their minds, but they still need to work together on matters of shared importance. Julia, as we've seen, conflicts have a way of spiraling. Once we jump to the conclusion that people who disagree with us on something are our enemies, it poisons the water on every issue, including areas where agreement is possible. Now, you've had a recurring argument with your husband. Ryan is a data analytics expert and he periodically wonders whether he should find a new job. Tell me how these conversations unfold and how they became a source of conflict.Julia Minson:Well, so we have been together for a very long time. We've been married for 22 years now. So every few years we go through sort of a period where he says something like, "well, it's been three years since the last time I've gotten promoted. And so for the next few months, just FYI, I'm going to be working really long hours because at my next annual review I want to jump to the next level." And that all sounds very sensible, but what that really means is that he's going to work really, really hard. They're not going to recognize it because corporate America is rarely fair. And then he will be frustrated and then we'll go through another sort of long drawn out period of him deciding what to do and whether to move somewhere else and you know-Shankar Vedantam:And you're describing this in a very calm level headed analytical way, I'm assuming that's the way these conversations actually unfolded.Julia Minson:Well, these conversations unfold like this in my head, whereas in reality what happens, right, is that he tells me that he's unhappy in his job and I tell him what to do and he says, "don't tell me what to do." And ironically, the longer you're married, the less you feel heard because nobody's actually listening anymore because we both think we know what the other person is about to say. He is about to complain about his job. I'm about to tell him to go get another job offer so that he gets promoted at the current job because he has an alternative offer.And then he will tell me to stop meddling in his career and then I will walk off in a huff because it's not just his career, it's our whole, it affects the whole family. And I mean it's tremendously important. My husband's income is the lion's share of the income in our household and we are completely interdependent because when he says I'm going to work much longer hours to get this next promotion, it means that I am now taking care of three kids with less help. And of course I teach negotiations, so I think I know how to do this. So I am 100% confident that I'm right. And he says, "no, it's my career in my organization and I know the rules, and I'm 100% confident that I'm right."Shankar Vedantam:Now you decided to try something with Ryan that you were learning from your research. But in order to get to that after your somewhat false start with that eye contact study, you started working on a technique that you call conversational receptiveness. What is conversational receptiveness?Julia Minson:So conversational receptiveness is the use of words and phrases to demonstrate to your counterpart that you're engaged with their point of view. Quite often when we give people advice about conflict and how they should handle conflict, we tell them, try to be more empathetic, try to take the other person's perspective, try to exercise intellectual humility. And what we found was that their counterpart has no idea that they're doing any of that. It's not transparent. And because it's not transparent, it has no effect on the conflict. And so conversational receptiveness is basically predicated on the idea that we need to demonstrate to people that were engaged with their point of view in a way that's visible and very easily recognizable to counterparts because you can't get credit for things in your head.Shankar Vedantam:Julia discovered through her research that there are four specific techniques that communicate conversational receptiveness.Julia Minson:And they make a nice acronym. The acronym is HEAR, as in 'I hear you.' The H stands for hedging. So it's saying things like perhaps or sometimes, or maybe. The E stands for emphasizing agreement. So I might say I agree that the last couple years have been really hard on people, or we both think that it's really important to make school safe for our kids. That A stands for acknowledgement. So it's essentially using some of your own airtime to restate your counterpart's position. And then the R stands for reframing to the positive. So you can basically say the exact same idea using positive words instead of negative terms, right? You might say, instead of saying I hate it when people interrupt me, you might say, I really love it when people let me finish.Shankar Vedantam:Julia has used this four-step process — hedging, emphasizing areas of agreement, acknowledging the other person's perspective and reframing to the positive — to train groups of people in the practice of conversational receptiveness. I asked her to describe what happens when people employ these techniques.Julia Minson:So, it's really interesting. There is work going back to the 1960s that basically says people love feeling heard. And that's essentially what conversational receptiveness does, is it makes people feel like their counterpart is really engaging with them. And so as a consequence, they think of those counterparts as more trustworthy. They think of them as being more objective. They think they have better professional judgment. If this is a professional situation, they're more willing to talk to this person about other issues. So basically you get a lot of positive interpersonal benefits from essentially saying the same thing, but saying it in a way that acknowledges your partner's point of view.Shankar Vedantam:And I understand that there are elements of conversational receptiveness that in some ways are contagious, that in some ways you are demonstrating it prompts your partner as well to demonstrate some of it.Julia Minson:Yes. And the thing that's very interesting about conversational receptiveness is that we've done studies where we train one person to be conversationally receptive, right? Let's say person A. And then person B responds to person A. And not only is it the case that the more receptive A is the more receptive B is, but it also seems that B is using other aspects of conversational receptiveness. So they're picking up kind of like the whole style. They're not just directly copying the words that were said to them.Shankar Vedantam:A lot of the work on conversational receptiveness is focused on the value of asking questions. And I think most people don't think about the difference between asking questions versus making statements. People don't actually are not conscious when they're having conversations about how many statements they're making versus how many questions they're asking. But you found that the act of asking questions itself can have a transformative effect on a conversation. Describe that for me, Julia.Julia Minson:What it does is it demonstrates curiosity and interest in the other person and the desire to learn about them and the desire to sort of show that you are putting in the cognitive effort. And what I mean by that is, the very first paper I wrote with Frances when we were at Stanford, and I was still working with Lee Ross, was a paper about asking questions. And Lee said to us at the time, "you know, you are not going to get good results from telling people to ask questions in conflict because people are going to ask nasty questions. They're going to say things like, what kind of idiot believes that?" And he was right. So like in most things, having anything to do with psychology, Lee was right. We only started getting positive sort of effects from question asking when we specified what kinds of questions people were allowed to ask.So we called them elaboration questions, which are basically, would you please elaborate? So you could say something like, I'm curious why you believe that, right? It's a statement, but it's doing the work of a question because what it's, it's expressing curiosity. And that's similar to another paper where we got people together who were not in conflict, people who were simply trying to get to know each other and have sort of a pleasant conversation. So imagine being at a party with colleagues or imagine you're dating, right, what makes for a pleasant conversation. And what we found was that being asked questions made you like your counterpart more, but it was specific questions and it was what we called follow-up questions. So if I said, where did you grow up? And you say, Chicago, I can't then say, where did you go on vacation? Because it's a question, but it's ignoring what you just told me. I would be much better off saying, oh, do you like the Cubs? So you need a question that follows up because it demonstrates listening and interest.Shankar Vedantam:Some of these ideas might seem obvious. If you want to have a good conversation, listen, show interest in what the other person has to say, demonstrate curiosity, avoid making statements that suggest your opinion is the only opinion worth hearing. But knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it are not the same thing. One day after work, Julia had the opportunity to practice conversational receptiveness with her husband. It was on a Friday evening, and Julia had spent the entire week at a mediation seminar where she got to practice the art of conversational receptiveness.Julia Minson:This was five days, eight hours a day of nothing but mediation. And an important technique that mediators use is something they call the listening triangle, which is very conceptually related to conversational receptiveness. You ask a party in conflict a question, you listen to the answer, and then you say, well, I just heard you say X, Y, Z. Is that right? And then that starts the next round because you just asked a question. And so now you have to listen to the answer and then they finish talking and you say, aha, so it seems like you're saying blah, blah, blah. Is that right? And then you're just supposed to do this endlessly until the person you are listening to says, yeah, yeah, yeah, you got it. Like I'm done. And I was impressed with this technique and I thought that this was really related to conversational receptiveness because it's all based on acknowledgement.And then the week runs out and it's Friday night. And I remember having martinis at our kitchen bar and my husband says the thing that he sometimes says that, "I'm going to be working really hard because there are these projects I want to finish and I want to get promoted." And without giving it another thought, I said, "you always say this and then you never do anything about it, and then you never get credit for it, and here's what you should do instead." And he was so, so upset with me and I was sort of surprised by how upset he was. And as I said when we're talking in the beginning of this conversation, we're not yellers, we're slow brooders. So now he is silently washing the dishes and I'm sitting there at the kitchen bar with this martini that, the nice evening just kind of got destroyed.And I'm trying to understand what just happened and how we got here. And then I remember this damn class I've been in all week, and the irony just blew my mind that I knew exactly what I should have done and I knew it from my research and I had just spent a week practicing it on strangers. And then I was in this moment when it was perfectly applicable and I didn't even think of doing it. And so I was surprised at how hard it was to one, even bring that knowledge online in the moment. And then once it was kind of top of mind for me to really execute on it.Shankar Vedantam:What did you do, Julia?Julia Minson:I sat there for probably, I don't know, 15, 20 minutes wrestling with myself. And then I literally just said, you know what? Let's try this again. Tell me why you think you need to work harder and longer. And then I just shut my mouth and I listened and I asked follow-up questions, and I was very much not genuinely interested. I was just trying to defuse a fight and he wasn't happy with me, but it did do the job. And he was actually not looking for my input in his career. He was looking for my support while he did what he thought needed to be done.And the entire time I'm sitting there thinking in my head, when is he going to ask me for my opinion? But I'm like, nope. I said to myself, I'm not doing that anymore. And so I would just ask questions and clarify and he would talk. And then over time he started saying, "well, what do you think I should do?" And I started very carefully saying, "well, I might consider possibly doing X, Y, Z," which is sort of hedging my claims and just sort of offering it as a suggestion, not saying you need to go do X. And that's sort of been the dynamic as recognizing that it is his career. And I think me giving him that respect has led him to give me the respect of saying, "hey, negotiation professor, what should I do?"Shankar Vedantam:I mean, it's a real irony here, isn't it? Which is the harder you push, the more he digs in his heels and stops listening. But when you stop pushing and start listening, it not only makes you less angry, but he suddenly finds it easier to seek you out and ask you for your advice.Julia Minson:Right. And that's the findings in our research as well. So one of the studies we did with conversational receptiveness was actually to see whether being receptive might make you less persuasive. So you could imagine if you're hedging your claims and showing agreement and letting the other person talk, it might be seen as like you're uncertain. And so your message actually has less impact. But instead we found the opposite. We found that when you have people who disagree on hot button issues, so like Black Lives Matter or what universities should do when there's an accusation of sexual assault on campus, when you train one side to use conversational receptiveness, the other side is a little more likely to actually move towards their perspective.Shankar Vedantam:When we come back, barriers to conversational receptiveness and how to overcome them. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Julia Minson studies how conversational receptiveness can defuse conflicts and allow people to work together even in the face of intractable disagreements. Julia, the behaviors associated with conversational receptiveness seem relatively straightforward, and yet they can be difficult to implement as you yourself have discovered. You recently had a conflict with a colleague as you were working around the clock to organize a huge academic conference. Tell me what happened.Julia Minson:We had a miscommunication with one of the researchers who had organized a panel for the conference and the panel did not appear on the schedule and the researcher was upset. And we got an email back that said, let me tell you how sick and tired I am as a woman of color not being taken seriously in my role. And there were a couple things that made me particularly upset about this email. One was that organizing this conference is sort of nowhere in my job description. I was doing the field a favor during this big time of crisis where everybody was running around trying to keep work afloat on Zoom. And so I had taken on this big task and we were rapidly approaching the conference and everybody was working really, really hard. And the other piece, of course, is the accusation that we mistreated this person because she is a woman of color, felt particularly unfounded because them being left off the program was a complete misunderstanding and an innocent one at that.And so I was really upset. I'm at the grocery store, literally in the produce aisle, and I get this email that's accusing me of being a racist and a sexist in one breath. And I've sort at this point learned my lessons about conversational receptiveness. And I thought, okay, here's what I need to do. I need to get home and I need to write this email, and I'm going to use conversational receptiveness and I'm going to acknowledge and I'm going to hedge my claims and I'm going to find areas of agreement and all the things. And the entire time I'm driving home and I'm writing these different drafts of this email in my head, and none of them sound receptive, all of them are focused on me wanting to express how incredibly upset I am that this happened to me and how right I am and how wrong she is, and how underappreciated and frustrated I am. I mean, honestly, by the time I was coming home, I was starting to think, well, maybe conversational receptiveness isn't that useful because I can't think of any way to apply it to the situation.And then I walk in the house and my husband starts helping me unload the groceries, and I'm telling him about this whole thing and I'm fuming and saying how I need to ride back because I can't just ignore this. But also I can't think of anything particularly civil to say. And he basically just started dictating the email to me, because of course he listens to me talk about conversational receptiveness all day long. So he knows the entire toolkit and he was just fabulous at it. And I mean, I literally typed out what he said and I sent it off. And within hours I got a lovely email back that said, "thank you so much for understanding, and you can relate to how hard it is to be a woman in academia. And one day when the pandemic is over, we'll get together and we'll get to know each other." And it was just a very nice email from a person who felt heard. And I mean, my husband gets the credit for hearing her because in that moment I certainly couldn't.Shankar Vedantam:So I want to talk about the role of emotions as we are having these conflicts and disagreements. It's hard in the middle of a heated argument to put on your thinking cap and remember what the smart thing is to do. Can you just talk about how our emotions can sidetrack us from what is self-evidently the right thing to do?Julia Minson:It's interesting. Emotion, of course, plays a huge role in conflict. And in some of my work, what we see is that the primary emotion in attitude and conflict is anger. It's anger and frustration, sort of, why don't these people get it? Why don't they see it the way I see it? So I think anger and frustration play a huge role in our inability to sort of do the right thing even when you know what the right thing is. It's like there's, like I almost think of like there's a bug flying and I just have to smush it. I can't let it keep flying around my head. And it's that impulse to put an end to the speech that you strongly disagree with, I think often gets us in trouble.Shankar Vedantam:One thing that you have found that poisons the water, and in some ways the letter that you received from your fellow academic, I think speaks to this, is that when we are upset in conflicts, many of us resort to using moral language. So I don't just simply say, I'm upset that I've been left off the conference schedule. What explains the oversight? The person went to the additional length of basically saying, "I've been left off the conference schedule because of racism and sexism." What is the effect of using moralizing language as we are debating and disagreeing with each other, Julia?Julia Minson:Yeah, so moralizing language tends to pour oil on the fire, in the sense that it's very, very hard to stand in the face of that kind of accusation and not react emotionally, right?Shankar Vedantam:Yeah. And of course, in the course of arguments, we often think that using moral language is sort of a sledgehammer. We use it almost as a tactical weapon on the battlefield to basically disarm and disable our opponents. But of course, our opponents are doing exactly the same to us.Julia Minson:Right, right. And this is of back to naive realism. We believe that we have the ultimate kind of form of evidence on our side, which is that our argument is morally superior. And so once I bring that moral perspective into this, there's no longer going to be any debate.Shankar Vedantam:One of the things about this four-stage process that you articulated, one of the more surprising things, I think, is that you find that when people spend time articulating their opponents' point of view, actually giving their own airtime to articulating what their opponents think, it actually makes it more likely that they are going to be heard in turn. And why do you think that it's effective to spend your own airtime articulating what the other person is thinking?Julia Minson:I think there's probably two reasons why it works. I spend a lot of time thinking about why is it we're in such a rush in conflict? And I think there's two reasons why we're in a rush. One is how it just feels terrible to have bad ideas out in the world and how we just want to bat them down. The other is that most of these conversations are very unpleasant. And so you want to get out of there and you expect that your partner wants to get out of there. And so there's this feeling of, like if I don't say it, then I'm never going to have a chance to say it because this is going to be a short and furious conversation.I think acknowledging your counterpart's point of view and really listening to them and asking them lots of questions triggers two things. One, it triggers reciprocity. So reciprocity is one of the most powerful social forces we've ever studied. And if I listen to you patiently and at length, and then I start talking, you're going to feel like a real jerk interrupting me. And now that I have given you my time and lent you my ear, you now have to do the same. And I think the second thing it triggers is it makes the conversation much less unpleasant, and therefore that feeling of urgency disappears. We go from this, like how fast can I say my piece because this is all about to explode to let's have a long, thoughtful, drawn out conversation about this. That just has a very different pace to it.Shankar Vedantam:In studying conversational receptiveness, you drew a distinction between actually displaying conversational receptiveness, as in actually feeling it, what's going on inside your head, and actually demonstrating it on the outside, regardless of whether you actually feel that way or not. So in the email that you composed to your fellow academic, presumably at the point at which you hit send, given that your husband composed the email for you, you didn't actually feel everything that you said in the email, and yet it had the effect of having the other person say, okay, this person is really listening to me. What are you recommending here? Are you recommending that we actually try to be more empathetic and open to other people, or that we simply just demonstrate that we are doing those things?Julia Minson:I wish the world was a place where people in conflict could feel empathetic and open and then act on that empathy in a way that's sort of transparent and recognizable to their counterparts. But I don't think that's how humans work. I think conversational receptiveness is a lot like the other types of aspirations we have that sometimes we live up to and sometimes we fail to live up to. So we have lots of goals. I want to exercise more often, I want to spend less time on Twitter. I want to call my mom, like all the things that you know you want to do, but for various reasons you fail to live up to. And I think conversational receptiveness is like that.It's that you aren't as receptive as you aspire to be. And so in that moment, I think faking it is perfectly fine. You get there however you get there because it leads to a better outcome. If you think back to my example, I didn't write the email that the screaming voice in my head was writing. I knew that that was not the kind of person I wanted to be in this situation. And so I think conversational receptiveness is a toolkit to kind of help people live up to their best selves, even when in the emotional moment, they can't quite do it, like they can't improvise their way there.Shankar Vedantam:Or they can't do it authentically, if you will.Julia Minson:Right, right, right. But the defused fight is better than the undefused fight.Shankar Vedantam:Conversational receptiveness is not a magic bullet. Not everyone you listen to carefully is going to come around to your point of view. In her own life, Julia has realized that what conversational receptiveness really allows her to do is to keep an intractable conflict in one domain from derailing an entire relationship.Julia Minson:Yeah, I think part of what happens is people are so focused on persuading the other side that they don't think about laying the groundwork for the next conversation. Every conversation is just the lead up to the future conversation. And so what can you do now to make the next one better, kinder, more informative, more harmonious, all of those things. And then persuasion may or may not happen somewhere along the way. But can we focus on the next conversation?Shankar Vedantam:Julia Minson is a psychologist at Harvard University. Julia, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.Julia Minson:My pleasure.Shankar Vedantam:Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. For our unsung hero, we turn the mic over to you, our listeners. Today's unsung hero is brought to you by OnStar. OnStar advisors are now with you everywhere: on the app, in your car and at home. OnStar, be safe out there. Our story comes from Ritch Addison.Ritch Addison:So when I was young, I was very shy. I was an only child who was pretty comfortable talking to adults, but I never had any brothers and sisters to practice on. So I wasn't very good at kind of mixing it up with the other kids. And I remember being very anxious about going to school. And on Sunday nights, I would not be able to sleep just worrying about what would happen with the other kids. So now, flash forward a few years, and I'm in high school, and I realized that I had to be different, that I couldn't keep being so shy. So I went about developing a quick wit and a sense of humor that would keep other kids off balance so I wouldn't have to feel powerless. You know how sometimes people say the best defense is a good offense? Well, that was what I was doing, but the sense of humor I developed was kind of biting and kind of critical.So now my hero is about to come into the story. And this was my friend Holly. And one day Holly and I were talking and she said to me, "you know, Rich, sometimes you really hurt people's feelings." And at first I was just shocked. I said to myself, that can't be true. I was entertaining. I made people laugh. I liked people. These were my friends. I didn't want to hurt them. I couldn't be hurting them. But I kept thinking about what Holly said, and I kept turning it over in my mind. And eventually I realized that she was absolutely right. And I started paying attention to how my humor was affecting other people. And I changed it.It didn't happen immediately. It didn't happen overnight, but I changed and I wanted to be more compassionate towards people, and I wanted to have a different kind of relationship with them than always keeping them off balance. So after I went on to become a clinical psychologist, and in my role, I try to help other people have generous interpretations about themselves and others, and I've also made a career out of training physicians to do that. And I really am so grateful that I made that shift in my life. And I really owe it to Holly. And I think back to that time so many years ago, and when she cared enough to say something to me, something that probably wasn't easy to say, but it was something that changed the direction of my life in a very significant and very gratifying way. So thank you, Holly. You're my unsung hero.Shankar Vedantam:Ritch Addison lives in Santa Rosa, California. Recently, he was able to reconnect with Holly and tell her how much her comment has meant to him some 50 years later. This segment was brought to you by OnStar. OnStar believes everyone has the right to feel safe everywhere. That's why their emergency advisors are now available to help not only in the car, but wherever you are, on your phone, in your car, and at home. OnStar, be safe out there. If you liked this episode and would like us to produce more shows like this, please consider supporting our work. Go to support.hiddenbrain.org. Again, if episodes like this help you live a better life, if they improve the quality of your relationships, please do your part to help us make more shows like this, go to support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.
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