Ask A Negotiation Expert: How Conversational Receptiveness Might Bridge Our Divide

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

In the United States and elsewhere, people with very different worldviews on politics seem hopelessly and dangerously divided. A skill called “conversational receptiveness,” which involves using certain language to show you’re willing to thoughtfully engage with opposing views, can help lessen tensions, write researchers Michael Yeomans of Imperial College London, Julia Minson of Harvard Kennedy School, Hanne Collins and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, and Frances Chen of the University of British Columbia in a new study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. We recently spoke with Gino and Minson to find out more. The bulk of the interview took place before the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Negotiation Briefings: What motivated you to explore the possible benefits of conversational receptiveness?

Francesca Gino: I was looking for hope in a world where we seem to have difficulty having productive conversations when our beliefs are different. Julia and I have seen that some organizations and individuals are finding ways to bridge such divides. The not-for-profit Braver Angels, for example, was formed after the 2016 election to facilitate conversations between Democrats and Republicans. People with very entrenched beliefs become capable of having a thoughtful conversation, in part because the moderators foster receptiveness.

Julia Minson: One of the things that kicked off this work was the question of whether people recognize when you are sincerely trying to engage with them. Turns out, they don’t! We want to sound receptive, but we end up using the wrong words.

NB: What are some ways of demonstrating receptiveness that you found to be effective?

JM: We wrote an algorithm that picks up the specific words and phrases that sound receptive to people. The most important signal of receptiveness involves acknowledging your counterpart’s point of view: “I understand you’re saying . . .” or “I think you mentioned . . .” In other words, actively showing that you heard what the other person said.

Another signal involves finding areas of agreement. Even when people are on opposite sides of an issue, there are things that we all can agree on. Suppose colleagues are debating whether enough is being done to increase diversity. They can disagree on that issue but still agree with a statement like, “We all want to work in a company where people feel respected and valued.” This doesn’t mean compromising; rather, it’s recognizing that any argument is multifaceted and that most people have something valuable to say.

FG: I’ve used that one when my husband and I are in disagreement over a parenting issue. I say, “What I think we agree on is . . . ,” and it’s usually quite helpful.

Another receptiveness strategy that I love is hedging your claims. Rather than saying, “I’m 100% sure that this is the right way of looking at the problem,” you might say, “I think that one way to tackle this is . . .” The recipient is likely to see you as humbler when you speak this way.

NB: What benefits have you observed when people demonstrate receptiveness?

JM: In our experiments, we paired people who were on opposing sides of very emotional issues. We found that those who expressed conversational receptiveness were more persuasive than people who used their natural conversational style, which tends to be more argumentative and dogmatic.

A softer approach has the paradoxical consequence of making people more willing to come to your side. In addition, people who express conversational receptiveness are viewed as having better judgment, which makes opponents more interested in engaging with them in
the future.

In one experiment, we studied online arguments between Wikipedia editors about the content of Wikipedia pages. Sometimes these arguments get so heated that people insult each other and get kicked off the platform. We found that when one person expressed receptiveness very early on, the other person was receptive in return. These conversations were less likely to end with personal attacks and sanctions. Receptiveness is contagious, and it heads off conflict.

FG: I think this finding applies very well to the movement toward increasing diversity in organizations, which is obviously wonderful. But leaders in these companies need to manage the tensions and disagreements that come up. People can have more productive conversations by showing receptiveness.

NB: Is it difficult to learn to be more receptive in conversation?

JM: The participants in our experiments easily learned and practiced the features themselves, such as acknowledgment and hedging. But it’s hard to practice receptiveness on your own when you’re really upset. It’s hard to say, “So I think what you’re saying is . . .” and delay your own rant to make the person feel heard. It’s a self-control problem.

I had a conflict with a colleague recently, and I was so upset. I could not come up with any type of reasonable response. I shared this with my husband, who said, “Well, you know, you study conversational receptiveness. Use those strategies.” I used acknowledgment in the first paragraph of an email, and the rest flowed very easily. I got a very nice response back from the colleague, a 100% turnaround.

NB: So maybe taking a break helps, or switching to email if you were arguing on Zoom or in person?

JM: I think slowing down helps. Part of the task is to be more thoughtful about your words rather than just spewing the first thing that comes to mind, which is usually very negative.

NB: What if someone holds views that you find immoral or offensive? Is it still worth talking to them?

FG: I have shared the Braver Angels approach and similar stories in many classes. I sometimes ask, “Is there a limit to this approach? Are there conversations that are not worth having?” A lot of people, about 75%, say yes, they believe there is a limit.

I personally view this as a missed opportunity. I know of many situations where receptiveness has brought people together. I believe that if we allow ourselves to have a disagreement but look for commonalities, there is hope. If we have the courage to enter conversations with people we strongly disagree with on important issues, and open ourselves up to the possibility of leveraging receptiveness, I think we could have a better world.

Receptiveness is not about persuasion. We should be able to listen to someone attentively and evaluate their arguments without having to agree with them or compromise.

JM: Sometimes people refuse to engage in such conversations because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what conversational receptiveness is. They might think, “If someone tells me they don’t believe in climate change, there’s nothing they can say to convince me they’re right. So, why waste my time?” Receptiveness is not about persuasion. We should be able to listen to someone attentively and evaluate their arguments without having to agree with them or compromise.

Another objection is that when you talk to a white supremacist or someone who thinks Covid-19 was introduced by aliens, you’re giving legitimacy to dangerous views. That by being receptive, you’re spreading the disease, in a sense. But from my perspective as a researcher, that’s an open empirical question. We do know that receptiveness makes people more willing to change their mind. So, it may in fact be the opposite: By muzzling people, we may be further entrenching them in their views. This needs to be studied.

The broader question is, when showing someone receptiveness, what’s your goal? Is it to give the other person a chance at some dignity? Is it to repair the relationship? Is it to learn about them?

Sometimes it is to avoid a conflict. It’s important to know what your goals are.

NB: Would it be a mistake to try to use conversational receptiveness to try to persuade someone that they’re wrong?

JM: It wouldn’t be a mistake, but you’d need to know what makes for effective persuasion. Quite often, our intuitions about that are wrong, maybe because a lot of the research on persuasion doesn’t involve conflict. For example, marketing research shows that a strong argument from an expert is incredibly persuasive. But that’s a different psychological dynamic than when people attribute bad intentions to the other side. If you’re disagreeing with someone, presenting all your data and facts is likely to make them dig in. Hedging and humility will probably be more persuasive.

NB: Did the January 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters affect your views on these issues?

JM: I worry that the riots changed everyone’s fundamental beliefs about what a “Trump supporter” is. Instead of picturing a typical older, rural voter—basically, someone’s grandpa— everyone is now picturing the guy with the horns on his head, dressed in furs, and brandishing a weapon. For many, the stereotype has become scarier, more extreme. But it’s important to remember that those people were the extreme of the extreme rather than an accurate representation of the vast majority of conservatives. So I think it’s even more important to try to have thoughtful conversations in the wake of this tragedy—to try to move beyond the stereotype to get at what people think.

FG: When I watched the riot unfold, I was saddened and felt angry about the state of the world. But those emotions were soon replaced by a strong desire to spread what we know about receptiveness more broadly so that, no matter the context, we approach conversations, even those we believe we have nothing to learn from, with curiosity.