Talking with and Listening To People on the Other Side


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Newsletter 146 - Sunday, August 13, 2023

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess



Why Should We Do This?

In Newsletter 143, we started a series of posts on constructive and destructive communication. That first post talked about the problem of people getting biased images of the world (and particularly "the other side") from social media and traditional news sources. Part of the reason that biased news has such a strong impact is that many people have little contact with real, live people on the other side of the political spectrum. We increasingly live, work, and socialize, in politically homogeneous communities with few opportunities to meaningfully interact with people who are different from ourselves (a phenomenon Bill Bishop called the Big Sort).   So all the information we get about the other side comes through the media, and as we pointed out earlier, people tend to select news sources that confirm what they already believe.  They don't want to be presented with contradictory ideas, which leads to the uncomfortable mental state called cognitive dissonance

To avoid such dissonance, people tend to fall prey to a number of cognitive biases (or errors in thinking).  One particularly prevalent and problematic bias is known as the confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek, favor, interpret and remember information that  seems to confirm what we already believe.  This causes people to surround themselves with people and information sources who think as they do, and who reinforce their views. If they accidentally come across people or information that contradict their beliefs, the confirmation bias causes them to either dismiss it as "fake news," or reframe it, so it seems to reinforce one's existing beliefs--even when it actually doesn't.  (An example of such reframing which we discussed in Newsletter 143 was the June 3, 2022 Reuters story ,that said that "half of U.S. Republicans believed that the left led the January 6 violence, not the right. This is a clear example of spinning a story so that it corresponds to the notion that the left is always wrong and the right is always right.)

While there is considerable disagreement among psychologists about whether cognitive biases are avoidable, and whether one can learn to watch out for them and counteract them (see for example, the debate between Daniel Kahneman and Richard Nisbett, as described in Ben Yagoda's Atlantic article on cognitive biases), we think it is most certainly possible to intentionally seek out information from a diversity of sources, including ones from the opposite political party than our own. Similarly, we can intentionally question and challenge our own assumptions, both about ourselves and about the other side. For instance, we can ask whether we have, actually, contributed to the problem we are concerned about.  We can also ask whether there an understandable or legitimate reason why the other side believes X and Y are true or they are advocating Z. But in order to see unbiased answers to these questions, we must break out of our partisan bubbles and actually talk to, listen to, rand/or ead about people who think differently than we do.

How To Do This (Part 1)

So, whenever possible (and not dangerous to important relationships), we suggest people try to find real, live people who think differently from themselves to talk with.  Ask them—with true curiosity, not disdain—what they think about a particular issue and what brought them to that point of view. Very often, it becomes evident that, from where that person is standing, based on the information they have, the conclusions they came to were understandable (even if we do not agree with them).  Rather than getting into an argument about who is right and who is wrong, share how your ideas are different, based on your own background and news sources.  Don't try to suggest that your view is better, just that it is different.  That way you will both learn more about what the other side thinks and why, and you both are one step closer to being able to work together to find the "unbiased truth," and a path toward problem solving.  

We should always be looking for opportunities to do this.  For example, several times a year, particularly around Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S., extended families get together. That often means sharing meals and conversations with people on "the other side."  There are two ways to handle such situations.  A common one is to make a rule before coming together — "Don't talk about politics!" or "Don't talk about religion."  That might be "safer," but it often doesn't even work—politics is so much on people's minds these days, that it almost always comes up.

The alternative is using empathic or active listening to really try to understand where your uncle or cousin or in-law is coming from, much as we were suggesting above (though we didn't use the same words). Essential Partners (formerly the Public Conversations Project), a U.S-based NGO that conducts and trains people in dialogue, published a guide "Facing the Holidays, and Each Other" in November, 2016. Feelings have perhaps gotten more heated since then, but their guidelines are still sound.

Sometimes, we should note, such conversations still might be too dangerous. If there is a relationship that is very important to us, and we think the other person will not respond in a positive way to such a conversation, then this is probably not a risk worth taking.  In those cases, we still stand by the advice to steer clear of such conversations if possible, but still treat the other person with respect and kindness, in order to strengthen the relationship, and actively listen if "hot topics" do come up. Perhaps in the future, when the relationship is on more solid ground, you can have a meaningful political conversation—if you think it would be constructive at that point. 

Another model for these kinds of conversations is Beyond Intractability's Finding Common Ground Discussion Guide which which helps people or groups systematically work through a divisive issue by asking participants to identify points of common ground on which they agree and then analyzing areas of difference to determine which differences are based on factual disagreements (which the parties could work together to resolve) and which are attributable to differing values. It ends by asking how value differences could be addressed most constructively.

You don't need to wait until the holidays to do this.  Are there people with different backgrounds and ideas at work?  In your church, synagogue, or mosque? On your sports team or book club?  Don't avoid them—seek them out!  But don't challenge them to a debate or try to change their minds.  Rather, approach them respectfully with curiosity, saying you'd like to learn more about them, about their background, and their views on x, y, or z.  Invite them for coffee, or to go on a walk with you, or some other situation when you really will have time to listen to what they have to say. And once you do this, listen openly with real curiosity.  Don't listen to rebut them or to change their mind.  Listen to learn their background, what makes them think as they do.  Most often, you will gain more respect for and understanding of them and their views. That doesn't mean it will change your mind about yourself, but when people really do understand where the other is coming from, they usually gain a better understanding of the complexity of the issue being discussed and they may come to realize that some of what the other side believes is based, not on their stupidity or maliciousness, but rather on their life story and situation.

While correcting misunderstandings and inflammatory enemy images will certainly help limit the extreme intensity of our political conflicts, it will, of course, not be enough to resolve the important substantive differences that separate political parties and factions within those parties. Efforts of each side to impose their policies on controversial topics like abortion, race, gender, family structure, climate, inequality, and other issues will continue to drive intense political confrontations.  The difference is that these conflicts focus on issues that society really needs to successfully address, and not some imaginary threat of "the evil other side."

There are several ways to have such conversations. Two strategies that are useful in interpersonal interactions are active listening and I-messages. Dialogue is another useful tool for constructive communication within small groups.  We talked about dialogue earlier in Newsletter 134 about The Abortion Talks. We will be talk about dialogue more, as well as active listening and I-messages in a future newsletter.

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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

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