Lab Sets Up 'Difficult Conversations' To Find What Works

Aug 18, 2019

Many of us steer around difficult political conversations to avoid conflict with people with whom we disagree. Among people we know, we employ the tried-and-true method of staying away from politics and religion.

But there’s an entire laboratory dedicated to the practice of discussing challenging topics. It’s the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University.

Peter Coleman, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University and the founder of the lab, told Living Lab Radio there are things the lab can do to make the conversation go well between two people who disagree.

One of the most important things: set up the conversation so that it isn’t debate-style, which is a format favored by news media. Coleman said when the lab tried this “pro/con” format, the results were predictable.  

“They pretty much…escalate and get stuck,” he said.

In contrast, the lab introduced the study participants to the topic as not as a “pro/con” affair, but rather a multi-layered issue with many problems at play.

When you introduce people to the complexity of the problem and the nuances of the various positions, people have a “fundamentally different kind of conversation,” he said.

“People are more open to learning and listening to the other side. They ask more questions; they grandstand less in terms of their position.”

When this happens, many people tell the lab that they learned not only about the issue, but about the other person and their concerns.

“And oftentimes they learn about themselves,” Coleman said.