How to argue with Julia Minson

PodcastOctober 11, 2022
A referee and a boxer

You can always switch to advocacy once you feel like you actually understand. It's just that people tend to believe that they understand long before they actually understand.

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Intro

In this episode of The Decision Corner, Brooke discusses disagreement with Julia Minson, an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and former lecturer at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores the psychology behind disagreement and collaboration — why we often suck at turning the former into the latter, and how we can be better. Brooke and Julia dissect the thought processes that often fuel our discussions, how discussions turn into arguments (particularly, unproductive ones), and the reasons we can’t seem to figure out why. Julia gives us practical interventions, applicable on a personal level, that can help us avoid the feared Thanksgiving dinner screaming match and other conversations like it.

Specific topics include:

  • Advocacy v.s. Inquiry mindset
  • Why being a know-it-all is a problematic blindspot
  • How to effectively signal open-mindedness
  • Active listening: body language and verbal acknowledgement
  • Cognitive misconceptions about our counterpart’s open-mindedness
  • Scopes, baselines, and defaults
  • The role of asking questions, and how to ask them with genuine curiosity
  • Conversational receptiveness, intentional vocabulary, and the HEAR technique

The conversation continues

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Key Quotes

  • On making assumptions about your opponent
    “Given that I already think I'm going into this open-minded, changing my beliefs about myself isn't really going to help. The problem is not necessarily my belief about myself. The problem is my belief about the person sitting across the table from me, and the mirror image of that — their beliefs about me and my mindset.”
  • On the dynamicness of conversation
    “A lot of what we see in conflict is really a matter of ignorance. It's a matter of not even giving the person that first turn to say their piece. It doesn't take very long for somebody to actually say, "Well, no. I actually completely share your values and I understand where you're coming from, but here's my concern." That's usually so surprising that it's almost like that's all it takes! You're like, "Oh, you are a reasonable person." Usually if you are leading with inquiry and openness, the other person is going to mimic that and do it themselves as well.  And so, hopefully the sum of those things will make you go like, "Oh, this was not as bad as I expected it to be."”
  • On the inquiry mindset
    “The inquiry mindset approach is: “I know you're disagreeing with me, but I don't understand why you're disagreeing with me.” One possibility is that you know something I don't know. You have a different set of facts, or you have a different set of priorities, or you have a different perspective, so I am going to try to understand what it is that I don't know about the problem. That’s because if there's something that I don't know that I could learn from you, that's incredibly valuable and I want to garner that value.”
  • On the “that’s odd” moment:
    “When you first encounter somebody who holds a different belief from you, you can try to hypothesize about why and start to write down all the reasons that those things are completely wrong. Or, you can say, "There's another person who has a lot of experience, a lot of skills, and access to a lot of information — quite like me — and they reached a different conclusion than I did. That's odd." Just pausing at that moment of "That's odd." seems to be a really important differentiator between which of those paths you're going to go down.”
  • On feeling heard
    “People love feeling heard. It is just this magical ointment you put on relationships. In our own research, we have seen a lot of evidence of that. When people feel like you're really engaging with their perspective and trying to understand where they're coming from, it makes a huge difference in how they respond to you in the same exact argument. They just think that you are a more reasonable, more thoughtful, more trustworthy, better human being if you made them feel heard.”
  • On how to pace conversations
    “It's good to be conscious with those choices you're making — when you're facing disagreement, that's the time to slow it down. If you are agreeing with everybody, then just send them a smiley face — you don't have to use any words. But if it starts feeling like there's an issue, that's the time to back off in terms of the rapid fire piece and think, "Okay, can I type a little extra to prevent this from exploding into a screaming match on Slack?"”

Transcript

Brooke Struck:

Hello, everyone and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, Research Director at TDL and I'll be your host for the discussion.

My guest today is Julia Minson, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In today's episode, we'll be talking about conflict in the workplace, the mindsets we bring to it, and how to disagree productively — without being so disagreeable. Julia, thanks for joining us.

Julia Minson:

Thank you very much for having me, Brooke.

Brooke Struck:

In cases of disagreement, you have differentiated between two things called an advocacy mindset and an inquiry mindset. What are these two things and how do they differ from each other?

Julia Minson:

Yeah, so that's a great question and I think a really important topic. The distinction is not mine originally. There have been folks writing about these questions for really a few decades now, but really the idea is: advocacy is wanting to convince somebody that you are right. It's the idea that you want to change their mind because you're right, they're wrong. Both people can't be right at the same time, so it's really a very competitive orientation because, in the end, only one set of beliefs will be allowed to stand.

Whereas, an inquiry mindset or a learning mindset is a mindset of trying to understand: “what does the other person believe and why do they believe it?” Obviously, these two things are different from each other. They're not mutually exclusive, but it's really thinking about different goals that a person could have in a conversation when they encounter somebody they disagree with.

Brooke Struck:

Okay, great. Can we dive into a media example of this? So, let's think about a situation where I might walk into a meeting with a colleague and I'm bringing an advocacy mindset, and how that might play out relative to an otherwise similar conversation where I walk in with an inquiry mindset and that conversation goes differently.

Julia Minson:

Certainly. The jumping-off point for both of those types of conversations is disagreement. I observe the fact that I believe we should be doing X and you believe that we should be doing Y. 

What often happens is people, very automatically and very quickly, explain the disagreement to themselves in their own mind, like “what is the cause of this disagreement?”. The psychological term is attribution making — we attribute the disagreement to some set of causes. 

Quite often, that set of causes that we come up with is: “the other person is wrong. Here are all the reasons why their perspective makes no sense, why their approach to the project will fail, why the way they did the budget is incorrect”. The advocacy mindset is: you walk in, knowing all these things in your head to be true, so you try to explain to the other person why exactly they're wrong and how they should change their behavior. 

Of course, if this person happens to be another professional who knows what they're doing, they don't think they're wrong, they think they're right! So, it feels, to some extent, disrespectful. Like, "Why are you telling me how to do my job?" And so that person is likely to push back and say, "Well, no, here's why I'm doing [this] and here why you're wrong!" It becomes this back and forth where the underlying assumption is: “I know why you're disagreeing with me and your reasons are wrong.”

 The inquiry mindset approach is: “I know you're disagreeing with me, but I don't understand why you're disagreeing with me.” One possibility is that you know something I don't know. You have a different set of facts, or you have a different set of priorities, or you have a different perspective, so I am going to try to understand what it is that I don't know about the problem. That’s because if there's something that I don't know that I could learn from you, that's incredibly valuable and I want to garner that value. 

Then you walk in saying, "Look, I notice that you are proposing doing it another way, and that's not how I've ever thought about it. Tell me more about why you're thinking about it this way." 

You're not coming from an assumption that they're thinking about it that way because they're wrong — you're coming from an assumption that you don't understand why they're thinking about it that way and you're going to find out. That leads to a very different response.

Brooke Struck:

If I'm understanding you correctly, it sounds like there's a cause of this difference between these two paths that we might walk that’s really far upstream. 

You talked about this attribution at the very beginning. When you first encounter somebody who holds a different belief from you, you can try to hypothesize about why that might be the case, start to identify all the reasons you think they have for holding the belief, and start to write down all the reasons that you're sure that those things are completely wrong. 

Or, you can say, "There's another person who has a lot of experience, a lot of skills, and access to a lot of information — quite like me — and they reached a different conclusion than I did. That's odd."

Just pausing at that moment of "That's odd." seems to be a really important differentiator between which of those paths you're going to go down. If you think to yourself, "That's odd," and you pause there for a moment, then it opens up this curiosity, this learning mindset, this inquiry mindset like: "I wonder why that's the case." Rather than bypassing that short stop over at, "That's odd," and just jumping right into, "Well, I'm sure I can figure out why this person holds the beliefs that they hold, and I'm also sure that I can discount or exclude all of the reasons that they're going to bring to the table for holding that position, which is opposed to my own."

Julia Minson:

Yeah, that's exactly right and the thing that I always find really interesting is that, on one hand, what you and I are talking about right now is pretty commonsensical. If you think about two guys named Bob and Joe who disagree and you are, as a third party observer, saying, "Well, who is right and who is wrong, Bob or Joe?" You immediately recognize that you don't know because they're just two people with two different perspectives. If they're kind of equally qualified, it could be either one and these conclusions that we are coming to seem really commonsensical and almost obvious.

The problem is that, in the moment, people just sail right by the “that's odd” moment, as you're calling it, because assuming that we know why the other person is doing the things they're doing is just so automatic. 

When we do studies on this and we explicitly ask people about the reasons for their own beliefs and a disagreeing counterpart's beliefs, the differences are just staggering in the attributions that we make. I always believe in what I believe because I've thought carefully about it. I've read the relevant research and I am an ethical, considerate person that really minds both sides.                                    Then, if you ask for the reasons behind why the disagreeing person believes what they believes, "Well, they're not very informed and they've read too much biased media from their own side of the aisle, and they don't care about other people and they're just in it for the money." It happens so fast and the differences are just so big.

Brooke Struck:

Right. Yeah, if other people disagree with me, it must be because they're either incompetent, or evil, or misinformed, perhaps.

Julia Minson:

Yeah.

Brooke Struck:

So clearly that's a winning strategy. If you go into the conversation believing that your counterpart is some mixture of evil, incompetent, and misinformed, that conversation for sure is going to go well. So what makes the inquiry mindset more effective than that more combative advocacy mindset where really you're just looking to convert your opponent to your point of view?

Julia Minson:

Well, I think there's two big pieces. One is psychological and one is informational. The psychological piece is, since the dawn of humanistic psychology, we've known that people love feeling heard. People love feeling understood. It is just this magical ointment you put on relationships.

In our own research, we have seen a lot of evidence of that. When people feel like you're really engaging with their perspective and trying to understand where they're coming from, it makes a huge difference in how they respond to you in the same exact argument. They just think that you are a more reasonable, more thoughtful, more trustworthy, better human being if you made them feel heard, so that's the psychological piece.

The informational piece is that there’s a really good possibility that they actually do know something that you don't know. Irrespective of how they feel about you, you want to know the information in their heads. Why is it that they form this belief or this opinion? Because once you know it from their own perspective, then you could say, "Well, look, no. I think you've been reading some fake news and I just don't agree." Or, it turns out that they actually have legitimate evidence that you should consider in your decision making going forward and wouldn't new information be wonderful?

Brooke Struck:

 In my initial question I asked you which one is more effective. In your answer, it seems like you clarified two things and those are a response to, effective at what? There's the psychological aspect, which is effective at reaching agreement and some peaceful resolution to the conversation. But then there's also that informational component, which is getting closer to the right answer — but not necessarily to your answer. 

Julia Minson:

Right. Well, I think these two approaches to conversation are only mutually exclusive if you start with persuasion. If you start with persuasion, it is hard to then back-pedal and say, "Oh, hold on a second, let me hear your point of view, now that I've lectured you.”

If you go in the other order, if you start with, "Help me understand where you're coming from," and then once you feel like you understand it, you can — and perhaps you should — say, "Well, here's my point of view and here's why I think my evidence is better and my plan is stronger” — whatever it is you want to advocate for. 

You can always switch to advocacy once you feel like you actually understand. It's just that people tend to believe that they understand long before they actually understand.

Then, secondly, I think there's this funny wrinkle to it where people think that asking questions and demonstrating a willingness to learn somehow implies that their own beliefs are weak. That it implies that they themselves are open to persuasion. So there's this sense that “I don't want to give them the platform to pontificate on their crazy. I'm going to smack this bad idea down right away so that it doesn't get any more oxygen.” And so, I feel like there's this urgency to persuasion. Like, "Oh, I'd better convince them before they say too many more words," and I think that's a mistake.

Brooke Struck:

Right. So, let's pivot now a little bit. Thinking about my own experience, I go into every conversation with an open mind. I'm willing to negotiate, to give and take, and to hear perspectives. The problem isn't me, it's all of those dogmatic idealists that I talk to. It's the other people in the meeting, they're the problem. Isn't that right?

Julia Minson:

Yeah. So it turns out that you're not alone, Brooke. One of the papers I’ve recently worked on has been with Hanne Collins, Charlie Doris, and Francesca Gino, and one of the things that we've been interested in is that these ideas about inquiry and advocacy mindsets have been out there for a long time, but there really has not been any empirical research on the extent to which people engage in inquiry or advocacy.

 We did some studies a couple years ago where we asked people about conversations they have around disagreement and the goals that they have going in. Do they have these inquiry learning goals or do they have more of these persuasiony advocacy goals? Interestingly, we found exactly what you suggest — which is that people think that they're going in with a mix of the two. Like, “well, of course, I'm right so I want to persuade, but I'm also an open-minded person so I want to learn.” 

What they believe about their counterparts though, is that, their counterparts are not at all interested in learning about them. It's this very robust difference. We've asked people the same question in a variety of different ways — we've asked them about conversations around politics. We've asked them to imagine talking to somebody who's a fan of a different sports team than they are. In these totally different contexts, people tend to believe that the other side is less interested in learning about the other perspective than they are.

Brooke Struck:

Right — the problem is not that I'm intentionally going in with a closed mind. In fact, I believe that I'm going in with this nice mix of “I've got information, it's valuable, I have a perspective that other people should listen to, but I'm also going to be receptive to what other people have to say.” That's how I feel about the way that I'm going into various conversations.

 Rather, it's my idea about the other person in the conversation that's problematic. I believe that they're only there to persuade — they're not interested in learning, they're not interested in listening. How does that lead me to behave when I don't think that the other person sitting across from me at the table has an open mind?

Julia Minson:

I think there's two pieces to it. I think when you go in with these good intentions, it's hard to execute on them. 

Part of the reason it's hard to execute on them is that when you think the other person does not have an open mind and they are out to persuade you, that is what creates this feeling of urgency. This person is going to interrupt me in 10 seconds, so I better get all my arguments out really, really fast. 

That sense that “they are not trying to understand, so I am going to be as fast, direct, and as strong in my arguments as possible in order to get through to them” is then self-defeating. What we see as being clear and presenting powerful arguments, our counterpart sees very abrasive and condescending, which creates this negative spiral.

There's this rush to persuade, and then at some point, you're like: "Well, at some point I'm going to listen to them and I'm open-minded. If they have anything worthwhile to say, I will definitely be open to it," but there's this big qualification to it.

Hanne Collins and I are running follow-up studies right now where we are trying to get people to express their willingness to learn. We've gone online to recruit research participants, and we asked them: "Can you write an argument for another person about why your perspective on this particular issue is correct?" They go on to write a persuasive paragraph about whatever it is. Then on the next page of the survey, we say: "Research has shown that demonstrating a willingness to learn makes things go much better. Can you rewrite your paragraph so that it demonstrates a willingness to learn?” That way, when we send it to the other person, they should read it and they say: “Yes, this person is indeed willing to learn about my point of view.”

What people do is they take their original paragraph and they say: "There's this one piece of this that I might be wrong about, so if you have any evidence of that, I would be open to hearing it." It's this grudging afterthought. Instead of saying "I understand that people have different perspectives. Here’s what I believe, but please tell me what I might be getting wrong. I would be really interested in hearing what you think," it's a paragraph of arguments with an afterthought of "in this tiny little limited area, there's a small chance that I might not know everything."

Brooke Struck:

“If you know something that is of value, now is your opening.”

Julia Minson:

Right — “here's your tiny window in which you're allowed to talk.”

Brooke Struck:

 It sounds like what you're starting to develop are some exercises that help me change my views about the mindset of the person who's sitting across the table from me. 

Let's just back up one step — given that I already think I'm going into this open-minded, and I have this idea that my opponent is coming in with a very closed mind — that they're really there just to get their arguments out on the table to persuade me, changing my beliefs about myself isn't really going to help.

The problem is not necessarily my belief about myself. The problem is my belief about the person sitting across the table from me, and the mirror image of that — their beliefs about me and my mindset. 

Let's start with my beliefs about them. If I just sit down and ask a bunch of questions, won't they get the hint that I'm open-minded and curious?

Julia Minson:

Yeah, so that's pretty good. If you ask a bunch of questions, that's an excellent start. You probably want to be thoughtful about how you ask questions. The original terminology of inquiry and advocacy, the idea of advocacy comes from an advocate like an attorney. Attorneys are famous for asking questions, but they're questions that are designed to make an argumentative point. 

People are very sensitive to whether you're asking them questions because you are making an argument that happens to have a question mark at the end, or if you are demonstrating genuine curiosity. When you say "How could you possibly believe that?" or "What evidence do you have?", you’re technically asking a question, but they both sound more confrontational than perhaps what you would want. Whereas, if you say something like "I'm curious to learn about your perspective," it's a declarative statement, but it demonstrates curiosity. I would say a really important thing to check yourself on is: are the words coming out of your mouth demonstrating genuine curiosity?

Part of what happens is, when I'm thinking curious thoughts, my counterpart can't tell because my thoughts are in my head. The words that are coming out of my mouth are really the only signal that my counterpart has as to what's happening in my head. As the speaker, I'm aware of both of those things. I'm aware of my thoughts and I'm aware of my words, whereas my listener only has the words to work with. 

As a result, anything you want to express should be expressed more and more strongly, because in your own mind, it feels like there's a lot of curiosity happening, but your counterpart is only exposed to a small fraction of that, which is what you're expressing with your words. If you are trying to convince your counterpart that you are genuinely interested in learning about them, you should do more than whatever it is you think you should do.

Brooke Struck:

Right. You talked about different types of questions and two of the things that stood out to me are about scope and the baseline assumption or the default. 

A broad scope would be saying "I'm interested in your perspective. I wonder what it is that seeing that I'm not seeing." That's not even a question, but it's this very vast opening to invite someone to share by saying: "Tell me what you need to tell me." 

That’s in contrast to the example that you brought up earlier where you present an ironclad argument for like 12 to 15 sentences in a row, making up one dense paragraph, but it’s followed by this tiny question which says "Well, in this tiny corner of this argument, there is perhaps an area where I have something of a blind spot." 

The default or baseline assumption is another part that stood out to me. It’s that tag at the end there: "If you have something important or insightful to share, now's your moment." That already assumes: “I don't expect that you do. It's unlikely.” I'm subtly giving you this cue that it would be perfectly fine if you said, "No, I have nothing further to add", as opposed to that declarative sentence of "I'm really interested in your perspective. I'm curious about how you arrived at the point that you did." 

The default for the latter is: "Well, you have to say something.” I'm inviting you to say something and in fact, I'm expecting it. If you were to say nothing there or to pass your turn in the conversation, that would be a very awkward break in the flow of the conversation. It wouldn't be clear where the conversation should continue on after that. 

On the other hand, for the first one, the default is: “I'm expecting you to say nothing. If indeed you did pass your turn in the conversation, we could just continue right along very happily.”

Julia Minson:

Right and I would take that even further. I think another part of the “default” if you will, is that, people who might not be super curious, but are trying to do the curiosity thing because they listened to a podcast and learned that it's the right thing to do, might think of this as a one conversational turn thing. I express my curiosity and follow the good advice of Brooke and Julia, and then I'm done. 

But, a lot of what I'm suggesting is very much in line with what professional mediators do — they have an approach that I really like. They call it the mediation triangle or the inquiry triangle

What you do is, you say something like: "I would really like to understand your perspective on this issue." Then, the person talks. Asking the questions are part one of the triangle.

Then, you listen to their answer and you restate it. You say, "So let me get this straight. I think what you said is that, a really important priority of this project is blah blah blah. Did I get that right? Tell me more.

Then, you give them a second chance at the same thing. Mediators will do this over and over again until the other person says, "Yeah, yeah, you got it. You got this right". They do it because it turns out that, most of the time, you don't get it right on the first try. But people do feel like they've done that perfunctory thing of asking one open-ended question and now they're done.

Brooke Struck:

Right. You mentioned earlier the importance of feeling heard and the almost magical effect that can be achieved when you manage to get someone to feel heard. That's really what reopening the question achieves, right? When you give someone that space, when you give them the wide scope and the default, they kind of have to pipe up. What you achieve is that sense that they've had all the openings that they needed to get their point out on the table — and now that they feel heard, they're more willing to listen.

Julia Minson:

Yes. Also, when you reiterate what they said, you are behaviorally demonstrating that you actually did hear them. There's a lot of research on this idea of active listening, which is made up of lots of different pieces. There's the non-verbals: things like leaning forward, nodding, and smiling at the right times. There’s also things like back channels: thinks like uh-huh and hmm — you're making noises, but they're not words. 

Verbal acknowledgement is a little bit different — it’s restating, in your own words, what the other person said. That really requires a deeper level of engagement than nodding, smiling, and saying “uh-huh”. It's what behavioral biologists would call a true signal, a valid signal because you can't fake it. You can't restate somebody's point of view effectively unless you've actually heard them.

Restating somebody's point of view is time consuming and that's partly why it's so effective. It goes back to urgency, and tells them that you don’t feel the need to convince them on the first salvo.

Brooke Struck:

Let's sum up, there's been a lot that we've covered there. We were trying to address this question of, “what can we do to effectively signal to the person sitting across the table that we are actually ready to listen?” 

We talked about asking questions, particularly asking open-scoped questions as opposed to restrain-scoped questions — giving people lots of room to get their perspective out without trying to box them into a tiny corner of your argument that actually you're willing to cut ties with anyway if push comes to shove. 

Also, framing those questions so the default is that they have to answer. Maybe a bit of a litmus test for that is: if you were to write out your questions ahead of time, could you basically write out the entire conversation just from your perspective? If the answer to that question is yes, it's because it didn't require hearing anything from the other side. That probably means it's time to go back to the drawing board. You might be able to write out your opening remarks, but you need to be more receptive to the dynamics of the conversation and willing to learn throughout it before you’re able to write the end of the script. You shouldn't be able to write the end of the script before even sitting down at the table.

You talked also about body language — nodding, leaning forward, and the “mhm”s and “uh-huh”s. We've been talking a lot about people sitting across the table from us. Even table placements I would argue is an important thing — the difference between sitting across the table from somebody and sitting side by side with somebody is actually quite profound. If we’re sitting side by side, when sharing information that’s written down, we are inviting them to look at things with us, rather than turning it to face them and pushing it in their face. These are all very valuable cues.

There’s also patience. A message that has come out a couple of times throughout our conversation — it takes more time. Something that follows from that realization is self-awareness. If you feel that you're in a hurry, that's a signal that you might not actually be as open to listening as you think you are, because really what you're looking to do is wrap things up. And so, maybe that's just a little cue that you should be paying more attention to when you sit down at the table.

I want to come back to summarizing and feeling heard because it seems to me that that’s a bridge between two things. What we had been talking about before is the set of practices that I can use to signal that I'm actually open to listening. Summarizing is really powerful in that respect, but it's also got an effective impact on me. When I have to listen actively — when I need to be able to summarize what this person is saying — that's going to change my perspective on how I'm interacting with the other person.

That's really what I want to pivot to now. Now that I know how to effectively signal my open-mindedness to the other person, what can I do to hammer home, to myself, that the person I'm talking to is more open-minded and has more valuable information than I might have initially expected if I had burned right past the “that's odd” moment?

Julia Minson:

Yeah. I think that's a great point: how do you convince yourself that this is valuable? I think one of the key things to remember is that conversations are dynamic. They're made up of conversational turns, so the way you behave on the first turn is going to impact the way your counterpart behaves on the next turn.

A lot of what we see in conflict is really a matter of ignorance. It's a matter of not even giving the person that first turn to say their piece. It doesn't take very long for somebody to actually say, "Well, no. I actually completely share your values and I understand where you're coming from, but here's my concern." That's usually so surprising that it's almost like that's all it takes! You're like, "Oh, you are a reasonable person." 

I think that first conversational turn makes you recognize that the person might actually say valuable things, which is great. They're going to say it in a more reasonable and peaceful tone than what you perhaps expected because they are emulating your reasonable and peaceful tone.It sets this pace for the conversation because people tend to mimic each other's tone and style. And so, hopefully the sum of those things will make you go like, "Oh, this was not as bad as I expected it to be."

Brooke Struck:

Right. Setting the pace is a really important thing. We talked about writing out that script: is it possible for you to write out the entire script of the conversation before it even starts? The answer should be no, and you can force it to be no by creating these moments where the conversation is going to be forced into the unknown. Where you write out a question that provides an open-ended space for your interlocutor to bring something forward — and you don't know what that thing is going to be. Then, the conversation goes off a cliff into this unknown territory beyond the horizon, where you have no visibility ahead of time. 

When you set that pace early on, that “I've created this space for you and that we are going to explore that space together,” the objective is not to just say: "One of us arrived at the table with the right answer and what we need to figure out is which one," but rather, "Each of us arrived at the table with something really valuable that's going to get us towards the answer." We have this common goal of figuring out: “what is it that each of us is seeing that's valuable and how do those things fit together? How are we going to build the next iteration of this, that it occurred to neither of us beforehand and how are we going to do that together at this table?”

Julia Minson:

Yeah. I think that's really important and I would say, there's two things that make people be in a hurry. One is, “why would I waste my time listening to these idiots when they will never convince me that climate change is not manmade?” just for example. “I've read the science, I've studied this for decades. Climate change is manmade and therefore, I am never going to talk to a climate denier because there is nothing they could possibly tell me.” The underlying assumption there is that the only purpose of a conversation is to litigate whether climate change is manmade or not. 

Or, you could say, "Well, look, we all have to live in one country, on one planet, and set policy together. We might not reach agreement on whether it's manmade or not, but could we reach agreement on what we should do given my concerns, your concerns, and the fact that we are all part of one community?" 

Or maybe you'll realize that this person who you have classified as a climate denier, isn't really debating the science of climate change, but simply has other priorities. A person might say, "Look, climate change is a problem, but it's a very down the road problem. There’s people in my community who have no jobs right now and I'm concerned about that. We'll deal with your climate change thing 30 years later." It could be that you don't even understand what the disagreement is about. 

That piece of it, thinking: “this is a waste stuff time because I know and they don't know. Therefore, I don't have to listen to them.” is one reason that people rush. The other reason that people rush is because they expect the entire experience to be really emotionally aversive. It’s thinking you’re about to have a very unpleasant conversation, and therefore, you want to have it as quickly as possible and get out of there.

Brooke Struck:

Tear off the bandaid.

Julia Minson:

Right. I've done research with Charlie Dorison and Todd Rogers, who is my colleague here at the Kennedy School, where we show that people have these really negative expectations about listening to opposing views. But when you make them listen, they're like, "Well, that wasn't fun, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be."

There's just this feeling of "Oh, I don't want to listen to crazy people, it's going to make me really uncomfortable." It's not going to make you that uncomfortable and they're probably not that crazy.

Brooke Struck:

I'll remember that the next time Thanksgiving dinner comes around. Okay. Before we wrap up, I want to ask you for some really, really practical advice. For anyone who's been listening to this conversation and just saying, "Yes. Yes. 1,000 times, yes. This so accurately describes all of the problems with the way that I sit down at tables to talk with people." For that person, what's the most important thing that they can start doing Monday morning to just get some traction and get some momentum going on this?

Julia Minson:

I think a really nice way to summarize a lot of the ideas that we have discussed is a set of tools that comes from our research and conversational receptiveness. Conversational receptiveness is the words and phrases that you can use to make the other person feel like you're really engaged with their point of view, even as you are trying to express your own perspective. 

It’s something that we developed using natural language processing. There's an algorithm that has come up with words and phrases that you can say. It's a long list, but we boiled it down to a cute acronym, which is “I HEAR you” — the only piece you need is the HEAR

The H in HEAR stands for Hedging your claims. Instead of saying, "Anti-vaxers always…" you say, "Sometimes people who are vaccine hesitant might..." You've got a “sometimes” and a “might”, so you're hedging.

E stands for Emphasizing agreement. It's basically finding an area of common ground to start with. We are all very concerned with the global situation right now. We all want to live in a country where people feel respected. Or, I agree that health decision making can be really complicated

A stands for Acknowledgement. This is what we were talking about — restating the other person's perspective. It doesn't have to be a full speech. It can be something like, "I understand that…" or "You seem to think that…" It's showing, with your words, that you heard the other person.

R is Reframing to the positive. You can make the exact same statement in positive terms versus negative terms. Instead of saying things like, "I hate it when people bring politics into the workplace," you can say something like, "I really appreciate it when we stick to our work when we are at work." 

You can write those things down and tape them to your screen and just sprinkle them into every email you send and life will become a little easier.

Brooke Struck:

Right. On the topic of patience, it seems that sprinkling those into instant messaging conversations is probably an additional barrier. If you're in a very rapid fire environment like Slack or something like this, it can be harder to internalize those processes. The more that you can choose your venue to select for patience, you're probably putting yourself in a better position in terms of working productively through those disagreements.

Julia Minson:

Yes, that's absolutely right. I would add that there are platforms that intentionally constrain how much you can say, with Twitter being the pragmatic example. Then, there are platforms where we have developed a culture of being rapid fire. There's nothing about Slack that prevents me from writing a complete sentence. It's just we choose not to write complete sentences. 

It's good to be conscious with those choices you're making — when you're facing disagreement, that's the time to slow it down. If you are agreeing with everybody, then just send them a smiley face — you don't have to use any words. But if it starts feeling like there's an issue, that's the time to back off in terms of the rapid fire piece and think, "Okay, can I type a little extra to prevent this from exploding into a screaming match on Slack?"

Brooke Struck:

Yeah. Yeah. In that instance, my “typing a little extra” favorite is "Can we talk about this?" 

Okay. Julia, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much. This advice is really practical, really actionable, and very meaty. Thank you for the research that you're doing and for sharing this with us today.

Julia Minson:

Thank you very much for having me on.


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About the Guest

Julia Minson portrait

Julia Minson

Julia Minson is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a decision scientist with research interests in conflict, negotiations and judgment and decision making. Her primary line of research addresses the “psychology of disagreement”: How do people engage with opinions, judgments and decisions that are different from their own?

Much of Julia’s research is conducted in collaboration with the graduate and post-doctoral members of MC² – the Minson Conflict and Collaboration Lab. At the Kennedy School Julia is affiliated with the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, the Center for Public Leadership, and the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Julia teaches courses on negotiations and decision-making as part of the Management, Leadership and Decision Science area, as well as through HKS Executive Education. Julia is the organizer of the HKS Conflict Management and Depolarization speaker series, sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership and the Management Leadership and Decision Sciences Area.

Prior to coming to the Kennedy School, Julia served as an Adjunct Lecturer at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, where she taught Negotiations at both the MBA and the undergraduate levels. She received her PhD in Social Psychology from Stanford University and her BA in Psychology from Harvard University. 

About the Interviewer

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Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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