• Behaviour

Reconcile Arguments and Move On

Harvard and BC University study values conversational receptiveness in our polarized times


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Disagreement and reconciliation sit at the heart of democracy and are fundamental features of our social and professional lives. For relationships to flourish and organizational endeavors to succeed people must reconcile diametrically opposing beliefs.

Polarization has become an inescapable aspect of today’s political debate, fueled by issues such as abortion rights, migration, and foreign policy. This can be intergenerational, it is said to be driven by social media, and is arguably worse today than ever—though participants in the revolutions of past centuries might disagree. Failure to thoughtfully engage with opposing views in order to reach compromise can severely hamper any human activity. In the workplace, where teamwork and collaboration are essential, it can stymie progress at many levels.

An intriguing study, from Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the University of British Columbia, looks for an antidote to polarization in debate. It considers how the linguistic behavior that people exhibit in discussion can powerfully affect their co-conversationalists’ perceptions, engagement, and willingness to cooperate with them. Developing the construct ‘conversational receptiveness,’ the researchers show how this can lead to more effective communication between people who disagree with each other.

Using a machine-learning algorithm to identify the linguistic profile of receptiveness, the study found that those surveyed who were rated as more receptive by the algorithm and their co-conversationalists—though not themselves—were considered better teammates, advisors, and workplace representatives. The researchers established that conversational receptiveness at the beginning of a conversation forestalls conflict escalation at the end, and has positive relational consequences. Conversational receptiveness can be reliably measured and crucially can be consciously improved.

Encountering opposing viewpoints is part of life, but despite this people do not seem to handle disagreement well, their contradictory opinions giving rise to avoidance, biased information processing, conflict spirals, and damaged relationships. On the other hand, argument and debate are the way ideas, plans, and innovations are developed into effective considered action. The concept of ‘integrated thinking’—a key to creativity—that combines opposing viewpoints to achieve a third way forward, only works if opposite views are aired and heard respectfully.

The core finding of this study is that, while arguments and disagreements are inevitable, people can disagree more effectively. The researchers offer four simple conversational behaviors that can enhance conversational receptiveness and ultimately conflict resolution:

  1. Acknowledge understanding. Using phrases like “I see your point…,” “I see where you are coming from…” or “Can you expand on that…”
  2. Stay positive. Say “yes” and “right,” avoiding “wrong” or “no way”
  3. Find points of agreement. “I agree,” “You’re right”
  4. Hedge to soften claims. Use words like “somewhat,” and “might”

Conversational receptiveness is all about signaling genuine interest in the other person, showing that you are really listening, and trying to understand their point of view. Finding small areas of agreement helps, as does framing statements positively with "yes," "should," and "can," rather than their opposite. It is also good to be specific and narrow in your claims, otherwise you may come across as a know-it-all who is closed to other viewpoints.

Being conversationally receptive may feel uncomfortably like weakness at first. It needs to be proactively worked at. The researchers also found that people are poor judges of their own receptiveness or lack of it. What matters is whether receptiveness is sufficiently signaled to other people. When it is your own point of view is more likely to be heeded and the chance to resolving an argument and moving on significantly improved. What applies face-to-face also applies online—social media is notorious for fostering polarization.


Access the full research paper: ‘Conversational receptiveness: Improving engagement with opposing views,’ Michael Yeomans, Julia Minson, Hanne Collins, Frances Chen, Francesca Gino. (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes).

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