By Richard Schiffman – nytimes.com – November 20, 2018
Thanksgiving is America’s yearly celebration of family togetherness. But with partisan divisions at a boiling point after the polarizing midterm election and a punishing political year, many are bracing themselves for a war of words at the dinner table this Thursday.
For the past two decades, Peter Coleman, the director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict at Columbia University, has been studying what happens when people clash over politics.
“There’s been a big increase in contempt for the other side, the idea that they are ignorant, selfish and out to harm America,” said Dr. Coleman, a professor of education and psychology.
Indeed, a report this fall by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans say talking about politics with people they disagree with is stressful and frustrating.
“These are extraordinary times,” Dr. Coleman said. “Anxiety, tension and hostility are increasing. People can have a few glasses of wine and really get derailed.”
So you might give politics a pass this year with that obnoxious uncle who is itching for a fight. Or at least try to seat him next to a diplomatic cousin who can help steer the conversation toward the beautiful pumpkin pie or the excellent movie she saw last weekend.
That does not necessarily mean that all political discussion needs to be shelved. But bear in mind that the conditions need to be right to pull it off successfully, Dr. Coleman said.
To discover what conditions are most likely to lead to positive outcomes, Dr. Coleman and his colleagues set up the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia Teacher’s College, where hundreds of conversations between people holding different political positions have been held since 2007.
Participants conduct a 20-minute dialogue and craft a joint statement about it at the end. Then they listen to a recording of the conversation and note their emotional reactions to the exchange. The results have given researchers — and sometimes the study participants themselves — clues about how to pass safely through the minefield of strong political disagreement.
One participant, Amanda Ripley, a freelance journalist, said she learned that it is important not to oversimplify the issue, and to acknowledge that there is no single right or wrong answer. Her conversation at the lab involved talking about the limits of free speech on campus with a Columbia graduate student.
Ms. Ripley feels strongly that students should not be shielded from “trigger words” that they may find offensive, while her conversation partner believes that there need to be limits on offensive speech. Before their dialogue, they both read a nuanced article presenting several different perspectives on a potentially divisive issue, rather than treating it in a binary black and white way.
The researchers wanted to see if exposure to a complex argument before the session made the participants more thoughtful and open to considering other perspectives.
Ms. Ripley said that was the case in her interaction. “If you give people something complicated to read before a conversation, it tends to go better. People are more open to information that doesn’t fit into their pre-existing narratives,” she observed.
Although she felt that exposure to complex arguments raised the bar, Dr. Coleman said that such conversations rarely change people’s minds. If you’re set on convincing that opinionated uncle of the error of his ways, “it’s not likely that will lead anywhere good,” he said. “Thanksgiving is not the place where you are going to change anyone’s opinion.”
On the other hand, if you are genuinely curious about where the other person is coming from and are willing to suspend judgment and listen respectfully, then there’s a greater chance that things will go well. But you should only proceed if what Dr. Coleman calls your “emotional bank account” is in good shape. “You need to ask yourself — do you have enough trust and positivity and rapport with this person to have a constructive conversation?” he explained.
One of the most hopeful — if counterintuitive — findings from conflict resolution research is that most conflicts do eventually get amicably resolved. In his book “The Five Percent,” Dr. Coleman cites a study by the peace researchers Paul Diehl and Gary Goertz that shows that 95 percent of over a thousand international rivalries that they looked at since 1816 were successfully worked out through a process of compromise and negotiation. However, roughly 5 percent — like the Arab-Israeli conflict — stubbornly resist solution.
Science doesn’t yet know a lot about why some conflicts prove to be so intractable, while others are more easily solved, Dr. Coleman says. And dialogue is not a silver bullet that will magically banish the deep and painful divisions in our country. But the good news is that simply having the two sides meet face to face is usually a step in the right direction.
“If people don’t have human contact, the scope for misunderstanding, vilification and violence is greater. Research says that when you bring people together it tends to help most of the time,” Dr. Coleman said.
Jenna Hoff, the 31-year-old graduate student in conflict resolution at Columbia Teacher’s College who was Ms. Ripley’s adversary in the discussion about free speech on campus, says our attitude going into the encounter is critical.
“If you see it as a zero-sum game where you either win or lose, you are less likely to be satisfied,” Ms. Hoff said. “But if you go into it thinking, I want to save this relationship, I want to remember why I like this person, I want to find a way for both of us to be heard, then it will go better. There is something to be said for planning in advance.”
Parisa Parsa, the executive director of Essential Partners, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Mass., that uses strategies developed in family therapy to structure conversations between Americans on contentious topics, says that good listening skills are critical. “About 70 percent of people go into a dialogue thinking that they are pretty good listeners, but only about 30 percent feel that they are heard and understood. So clearly there is some kind of disconnect,” she said.
One way to improve the chances of each side actually hearing the other out is for individuals to talk more personally. “Don’t try to represent or defend a political party or class of people,” Ms. Parsa advised. “Speak for yourself. We ask folks to tell stories about their own life experience and how they have come to the views that they hold.”
Ms. Parsa spoke about the experience of bringing anti-abortion and abortion rights leaders together after two people were killed in abortion clinic shootings in Brookline, Mass., in 1994. The participants reluctantly agreed to hold four conversations, but ended up speaking together on and off for five years.
The emotionally frank discussions “helped people have a 360-degree view of the other person rather than just seeing a position,” Ms. Parsa said. Nobody’s mind was changed, but the dialogues helped forge enduring friendships between people who had regarded themselves as political foes.
“We have found that these conversations don’t make people compromise or weaken their positions,” she said. What they can do “is foster respect and affection where once we had seen an adversary.”
That might be a reason for us all to give thanks.
To see this article, click read more.