Bridging Divides: The Surprising Satisfactions of Honest Conversation

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As polite people, we know better than to raise political, religious, or “culture war” topics with acquaintances who we expect will disagree.

Sometimes that is prudent. Rather than risk discomfiting disagreement with family members we love—and whose minds we are not going to change—we steer clear of discussing transgender kids, climate change, and the Trump trials.

Or we may just dread confrontation, perhaps as an emotional expression of our natural loss aversion. We prioritize not risking pain over potential positive gain.

Yet when we push beyond our comfort zone, by engaging those who differ, the outcome is often unexpectedly positive. Being too pessimistic about meaningful dialogue across divides, we avoid such—and thus miss out on opportunities to connect and to learn. That’s the conclusion of new research by Kristina Wald, Michael Kardas, and Nicholas Epley.

Their experiments build on earlier studies in which Epley and others induced people to reach out to strangers. Did striking up a conversation with a stranger feel a tad awkward? Yes, but the typical outcome was surprisingly positive, leaving both conversationalists feeling happier.

Their new experiments first confirmed that people have low expectations of discussion with someone who embraces a differing view of abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration policy, etc. People therefore avoid conversing with those of an opposing view.

Their second experiment matched people with someone of a kindred or opposing view on some hot topic. During a 10-minute discussion, each shared their position, why it was important to them, and why they felt as they did. The result: People expected they would dislike the conversation, yet afterward most felt much better about it than they had expected.

In a third experiment, some participants experienced a video call with an agreeing or disagreeing partner. Other participants recorded and exchanged monologues explaining their respective views. Again, the relational two-way conversation proved surprisingly satisfying. Listening to a monologue less so.

So why do we miscalculate the typically positive results of dialogue across differences? For at least three reasons, suggest Wald and colleagues:

  • Focus on differences: We often underestimate our common ground, thanks to our acute sensitivity to how we differ from others.
  • Civility: We seek to make everyday conversation a polite exchange, but fail to fully anticipate our civility when imagining a difficult conversation.
  • Confirmation bias: By avoiding conversations about disagreements, we “miss having the very conversations” that could better inform our expectations.

In other experiments, James Dungan and Epley found that roommates and romantic partners were similarly too pessimistic about the outcomes of hard conversations. Their conclusion: “Misunderstanding how positively others would respond to an honest conversation about a problematic relationship issue may leave people overly reluctant to have the kinds of difficult conversations that are important for their relationships to thrive.”

The bottom line: We needlessly avoid constructive conversations with friends, fellow students, or family members. To our collective detriment, we isolate ourselves in silos with like-minded others. “People segregate into intellectually cohesive teams, which are always dumber than intellectually diverse teams,” notes David Brooks.

Communication experts advise us on how to optimize dialogue across differences: Before offering your own view, listen to and reflect what the other is saying, noting points of agreement and what you’ve learned. Acknowledge the other’s admirable motives. Such are among the aims of organizations such as Braver Angels, which have engaged tens of thousands of partisan “red” and “blue” Americans in civil conversation: “We state our views freely and fully, without fear. We treat people who disagree with us with honesty, dignity and respect.” At the end of the process, “97% of Braver Angels participants say they found common ground with someone across the divide.”

Braver Angels workshop participants seek to bridge their divide.Braver Angels workshop participants seek to bridge their divide.

“What’s interesting about our work isn’t that talking to folks you disagree with turns out well,” Epley tells me. That much they already knew, from the many confirmations of Gordon Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis, in which equal status contact reduces prejudice. “What’s interesting is that people’s expectations are overly pessimistic, on average, and that has the potential to keep us overly segregated.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood. His 1962 remarks at Cornell College provide an epigraph for the new Wald-Kardas-Epley research:

[People] hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. And God grant that something will happen to open channels of communication.

David Myers, a Hope College social psychologist, authors psychology textbooks and trade books, including his recent essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves? Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind.

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see