To have better disagreements, change your words – here are 4 ways to make your counterpart feel heard and keep the conversation going
Your 18-year-old daughter announces she’s in love, dropping out of college and moving to Argentina. Your yoga-teaching brother refuses to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and is confident that fresh air is the best medicine. Your boss is hiring another white man for a leadership team already made up entirely of white men.
At home, at work and in civic spaces, it’s not uncommon to have conversations that make you question the intelligence and benevolence of your fellow human beings.
A natural reaction is to put forth the strongest argument for your own – clearly superior – perspective in the hope that logic and evidence will win the day. When that argument fails to have the intended persuasive impact, people often grow frustrated, and disagreement becomes conflict.
Thankfully, recent research offers a different approach.
For many years, psychologists have touted the benefits of making parties in conflict feel heard. Making someone you’re arguing with feel that you’re listening can calm the troubled waters, allowing both parties to get safely to the opposite shore. Two problems can get in the way, though.
First, when encountering disagreement, most people jump into “persuasion mode,” which doesn’t leave much room for listening, or even for pursuing other goals for the interaction. Any conversation could be an opportunity to learn something new, build a relationship that might bear fruit later, or simply have an interesting experience. But most of those goals get forgotten when the urge to persuade sets in. Second, and just as important, is that even when people do wish to make their counterparts feel heard they don’t know how to do so.
Rather than trying to change how you think of or feel about your counterpart, our work suggests that you should focus on changing your own behavior. Focusing on behavior rather than thoughts and feelings has two benefits: You know when you are doing it right, and so does your counterpart. And one of the easiest behaviors to change is the words that you say.
A conversational toolbox, based on what works
We used the tools of computational linguistics to analyze thousands of interactions between people who disagree with each other on hot-button social and political issues: police brutality, campus sexual assault, affirmative action and COVID-19 vaccines. Based on these analyses, we developed an algorithm that picks out specific words and phrases that make people in conflict feel that their counterpart is thoughtfully engaging with their perspective.
These words and phrases comprise a communication style we call…