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Why listening well can make disagreements less damaging



Guy Itzchakov

Associate Professor in the Department of Human Services at the University of Haifa in Israel


Offering undivided attention and curiosity not only lowers the temperature of a conversation but can change its outcome.

When you get involved in a heated disagreement, perhaps in favour of your political party or against a campaign you oppose, you probably feel a strong desire to show the other person that you are right and to change their mind. So, the most important thing is to make clear arguments, speak confidently, and steer the conversation, right? Well, not necessarily.

During disagreements, people tend to listen quite poorly to each other. Think of your most recent or meaningful disagreement: it’s likely that while you were speaking, your conversation partner was busy thinking about how to counterargue rather than genuinely trying to grasp your point of view (and might it be that you did the same?) In such conversations, it often feels like people are talking past each other, their opposing views clashing without real understanding. This process generates defensiveness and results in arguments, from which each person leaves feeling more confident about their initial attitude, a phenomenon called the ‘boomerang effect’. In other words, arguing often just further entrenches people where they started.

When left unaddressed or managed badly, as they so often are, disagreements like these can strain personal relationships and contribute to growing divides in public discourse. For example, it’s well reported that political polarisation in the United States has intensified over the years, with 28 per cent of Americans in 2022 naming it a top issue facing the country. Simultaneously, the percentage of Americans engaging with individuals from the opposing party has significantly declined. Compounding the issue, many Americans exclusively consume news or information from sources that reinforce their existing political beliefs, deepening disagreements about the fundamental facts surrounding numerous political issues.

As a researcher who has studied interpersonal listening for more than a decade, I am interested in what is possible when, rather than simply counterarguing with a person one disagrees with, one conversation partner responds by giving the other conversation partner undivided attention. My research suggests that if high-quality listening is deliberately substituted for a rush to defend your own perspective and strike back, it could lead to more positive, less polarising results.

When I say high-quality listening, I mean listening that includes several key features: attention, as exhibited by, for example, maintaining eye contact and avoiding distractions like our smartphones; comprehension, which one might show by paraphrasing the speaker’s message to ensure understanding (and identify missed points); and positive intention, or adopting a nonjudgmental attitude toward the speaker. Demonstrating these features of high-quality listening does not mean you need to agree with the speaker’s perspective. Instead, it means listening with an awareness and acceptance that the speaker is free to speak their mind.

Speakers who receive high-quality listening report greater clarity about their own attitudes

This open and nonjudgmental approach can also involve asking questions while the other person is speaking, rather than making pronouncements. For example, instead of saying: ‘I think that your candidate’s economic agenda will damage our country’, a good listener might ask: ‘How do you think your candidate’s economic agenda will affect our country?’ Regardless of the answer, this can make a speaker feel less defensive than if they are immediately challenged, and they may reciprocate by listening better themselves.

There is good reason to believe that high-quality listening can constructively influence a person’s attitudes about controversial issues. My previous work on listening suggests that when speakers experience high-quality listening, their attitudes often become less extreme and less prejudiced. Attitudes can also become more complex. For example, in one experiment, business school undergraduates disclosed their attitudes about their ability to become managers in the future. When they received high-quality listening from their conversation partner, they were more inclined to acknowledge their weaknesses as well as their strengths, compared with when they conversed with a moderate or poor listener. Additional work found that speakers who receive high-quality listening report greater clarity about their own attitudes.

However, none of these previous studies involved a disagreement between the listener and the speaker. Hence, I and my colleagues Netta Weinstein, Mark Leary, Dvori Saluk and Moty Amar decided to test whether high-quality listening can make a speaker’s attitude less extreme, even when the listener holds an opposing attitude.