Why Difficult Conversations Can Actually Be a Good Thing

Research suggests that structured engagement with someone who holds divergent views can be transformative, even without a concrete resolution.
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With difficult conversations, people often resort to domination, giving in, or walking away. But when those conversations are constructive, they help us understand each other’s views even if we don’t agree.

Illustration by Dane Mark/Getty Images

Putting two people with diametrically opposed viewpoints in a room together may seem frightening to most, but one research lab has been doing it for nearly 20 years.

The Difficult Conversations Lab was founded in the early 2000s by Peter Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. He said the lab was created to study deeply rooted, complicated, and hard-to-solve conflicts. He wanted to understand why conflicts in families, communities, and in the international arena get stuck in a destructive pattern. He based his idea for the lab on other projects like the Gottman Institute’s Love Lab for couples therapy.

Coleman said researchers at the lab measure people’s attitudes on a series of issues through surveys, then find people who are on opposite sides of a particular issue and invite them to the lab for a conversation. They choose currently relevant topics like abortion, free speech, race relations, and politics.

Researchers study the conditions under which the conversations go well, or well enough, whether the participants continue to speak with each other, and where they stop the conversations out of frustration, he said.

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Contrary to expectation, these conversations do not always go sour and are sometimes constructive, Coleman said. It is not that participants are solving the issues themselves, but they are creating the space to learn something about themselves, the issue, and other viewpoints.

“What we’re doing is not some sort of magical experience that transforms people,” Coleman said.

The lab has conducted several hundred conversations, and the research is ongoing, he said.

The conclusions the team have reached so far depend on the complexity of the conversation, Coleman said. The conversations that were less constructive were the ones where participants began to think of the issues they were discussing in simplistic terms: wrong or right, truth or lie, good or bad. In contrast, the more productive conversations were where the participants thought through the process of the conversation and had more complex discussions.

Coleman’s team has been using these observations to alter the conversation’s framing and complexity to see how it changes the outcome, he said. For example, if an issue like abortion is presented as anti-choice or pro-choice, people are prepared to argue.

“Most people pick a side and argue because that’s how we are sort of trained,” Coleman said.

However, if the same information is taken and presented as a variety of related but complicated sub-issues, then people feel, think, and behave differently because there is more to process, he said. The participants don’t get bogged down with feelings of contempt for the others.

“Most people pick a side and argue because that’s how we are sort of trained.”

Catherine Serianni, a student coordinator at the Difficult Conversations Lab, helps match participants based on their initial surveys and sits in on the conversations as a moderator. She said she keeps track of time, makes sure conversations don’t get too off-topic, and observes factors like body language and tone of voice.

Serianni said the conversations are always a mixed bag. Some participants bond despite their differences while other conversations can be tense and awkward.

“Essentially, no two sessions are the same,” she said.

Serianni said she hopes the research can encourage reflection and understanding about how we are influenced to think about certain issues. She also hopes that the study provides some perspective and has positive effects on how people with differing opinions interact.

Coleman said if there are problems, people typically will sit down and talk about it. For the majority of conflicts, he said, this is a good method.

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Student employees in the Difficult Conversations Lab discuss trigger warnings and provocative speakers on campus. Photo by Peter Coleman/MD-ICCCR.

However, Coleman cautions that discussing deeply polarizing issues can backfire. Instead, he suggests finding a group or organization like the National Issues Forums, which are designed to bring people together in a safe space to have wide-ranging, moderated discussions.

Another example is the The Center for Understanding in Conflict, a nonprofit with offices in New York and California that offers training in negotiation and conflict resolution.

“Our goal is to give people exposure to working through conflict as a way that changes their relationship to it so that they are not trapped by conflict, but they are liberated by it,” said Gary Friedman, the cofounder of the organization.

Friedman said the center focused primarily on lawyers and judges but has expanded to anyone who works with people in conflict, including human resources professionals and therapists.

With difficult conversations, people often resort to domination, giving in, or walking away. But when those conversations are constructive—where participants have the opportunity to learn about themselves, each other, and the dispute itself—they help us understand each other’s views even if we don’t agree.

“I think difficult conversations are a great thing,” Friedman said.