masthead_37.jpg
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lab Sets Up 'Difficult Conversations' To Find What Works

There’s an entire laboratory dedicated to the practice of discussing challenging topics.
thebarrowboy, https://tinyurl.com/y4vs6f32
/
There’s an entire laboratory dedicated to the practice of discussing challenging topics.";

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.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.