In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, three longtime friends—author David Blankenhorn, family therapist Bill Doherty and family research scholar David Lapp—were bothered by the animosity that seemed to have grown exponentially between Democrats and Republicans. The divide went beyond differing opinions on candidates and policies, they believed. Rather liberals and conservatives increasingly seemed to view each other as inherently immoral, unintelligent and malicious. Fewer and fewer Americans seemed interested in constructively engaging with the other side.
The three had an idea inspired by Doherty’s expertise in divorce and family conflict as a professor of family social science and program director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink project at the University of Minnesota. What if they could apply some of the same techniques and theories used in family therapy to try to heal the American “family”? And so they got to work, establishing a nonprofit called Better Angels (recently renamed Braver Angels) and adapting workshops and debates from the realm of therapy to cultivate goodwill between liberals and conservatives. The three were inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s warning of the dangers of disunity in his first inaugural address. We can heal divisions by listening to the “better angels of our nature,” the president told a country on the brink of civil war.
In Braver Angels workshops, Democrats and Republicans come together to learn how to have more productive conversations. An exercise called “Fishbowl” involves members of one political party sitting in a circle with those of the other group sitting around them. The outside group sits quietly and listens to the inside group answer a set of questions, such as “Why do you think your side’s policies or candidates are good for the country?” or “What is an experience from your life that had a big impact on your political views?”
After each side has had the opportunity to answer and listen, the moderators bring the larger group together for conversations about what everyone learned. “People tend to say, ‘Before the workshop, I thought my side was fractured and disorganized and that the other side was monolithic and effectively mobilized,’” Blankenhorn says. “They come to see that both sides can be incredibly diverse and disorganized.” Despite their strong beliefs and views, participants in the workshops change their attitude toward one another for the better, data suggests.
U.S. polarization extends beyond politics, of course. Disagreement is a key feature of social life, permeating organizations, families, friendships and crisis response. We regularly find ourselves engaging with people whose fundamental beliefs and core values differ from our own. One common response is to try to convince them to abandon their point of view in favor of ours. But that approach can backfire, leading to unproductive conflict. The good news is that people who disagree passionately on political and social issues can be trained, fairly easily, to have productive interactions.
Our research focuses on improving what we call conversational receptiveness—the extent to which parties in disagreement can communicate their willingness to engage with each other’s views. Conversational receptiveness involves using language that signals a person is truly interested in another’s perspective. When individuals appear receptive in conversation, others find their arguments to be more persuasive, our work shows. In addition, receptive language is contagious: it makes those ones disagrees with more receptive in return. People also like others more and are more interested in partnering with them when they seem receptive. Disagreements that may have spiraled into heated conflicts instead lead to conflict resolution.
We identified the features of receptive language by asking thousands of individuals to write responses to political statements with which they disagreed. We then had thousands of others evaluate each response in terms of how engaged, receptive and open-minded the writer seemed.
People know receptiveness when they see it. Our raters were in general agreement about which writers demonstrated receptiveness and which did not. Humans, however, are not able to pinpoint which words and phrases make a piece of text feel more or less receptive. So we developed an algorithm that could quickly analyze thousands of lines of text and identify specific words and phrases correlated with receptiveness. The algorithm allowed us to pick out the signal from the noise.
First, we found that words of acknowledgment signal receptiveness. Acknowledging the views of someone you disagree with by saying “I understand that ...” or “I believe what you’re saying is...” shows that you are engaged in the conversation. Hedging—indicating some uncertainty about the claim you are about to make—is also a sign of receptiveness. For example, “Going forward with this decision might increase market share” expresses more uncertainty, sounds less dogmatic and is thus better received than “Going forward with this decision will undoubtedly increase our market share.”
Another feature of receptive language is the use of positive, rather than negative, terms. “It is helpful to consider the benefits of investing fewer resources into an existing project” seems more receptive than “We should not invest any more resources into an existing project.” Finally, words such as “because” and “therefore” can set an argumentative or condescending tone in conversation. Individuals signal receptiveness when they avoid them.
After we had identified features of language that suggest receptiveness, we conducted studies in which we trained people to be more receptive and then observed whether others viewed them as such. Specifically, we gave some participants five minutes of training in using receptive language and then had them write a response to an essay written by a person they disagreed with on a given set of issues (such as policing and minority suspects or sexual assaults on college campuses). Participants in a control group wrote their response using their natural conversational style.
We assigned other participants to respond to one of these pieces of writing—specifically, to an essay by someone whose views they disagreed with. Those trained in receptiveness communication were more successful at persuading readers to shift their beliefs on important social issues, the results showed. They were also more sought-after partners for future conversations and were seen as having better judgment.
In another study, we leveraged data from a realm where disagreement is common: Wikipedia. We identified threads containing personal attacks in the talk pages for popular articles, as well as threads for the same article (with a similar length and date) that did not contain a personal attack. These data allowed us to examine the effect of receptiveness in the editorial process of correcting Wikipedia articles. We found that editors who were more receptive were less likely to incur personal attacks during editorial discussions. Communicating receptively prompted others to reciprocate by being receptive themselves.
Consistent with the lessons emerging from Braver Angels workshops, this research shows that through conversational receptiveness, we can begin to bridge our divides, whether in politics or family life or at work.