If you feel like it’s harder than it used to be to engage productively with people whose views oppose your own, you are not alone. The United States is a global leader in political polarization, and the problem only appears to be growing.
From the environment to education, few topics escape the rapidly widening partisan divide. The consequences of this are particularly serious for public health, as we’ve seen through the COVID-19 pandemic. Partisanship influenced stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and vaccination behaviors, which all affected (and continue to affect) mortality rates.
Getting a vaccine or taking medicine should be health decisions, not political ones— but here we are. So what’s the best way for state and local governments to positively engage with constituents, and ultimately shift behaviors to benefit public health?
Conversational receptiveness is a new, evidence-based approach with the potential to cool down conversations on heated topics. Grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior, conversational receptiveness (CR) is defined as:
The use of language to communicate your willingness to thoughtfully engage with opposing views, even if the other person strongly disagrees with you, or is not receptive themselves.
The goal of CR is to have a positive conversation where the other person leaves feeling like they were heard. People who use CR are seen as more reasonable and objective, which can encourage the person they were talking to to shift their behavior positively, or at least have a future conversation.
The research behind CR
The key principles of conversational receptiveness were identified and researched by Dr. Julia Minson and her team at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Business School, and Imperial College, London. In a series of four studies, the team trained an algorithm which identified CR’s core elements; showed that CR predicts conflict outcomes in the real world; and tested how well people could learn and apply these principles.
The results of the last study found that ideological opponents saw people who used CR principles as more persuasive. Opponents also said that they’d be more likely to collaborate with them in the future— suggesting long-term promise for building trust and cultivating positive sentiment.
How to use CR? Don’t just listen— H.E.A.R.
H.E.A.R. is a mnemonic for the four key ways of expressing Conversational Receptiveness. You can use them in conversation to show that you’re receptive to the other person’s point of view:
- Hedge your claims. Demonstrating humility through hedging (rather than making unequivocal claims) shows that you are aware of the nuance of a topic and have arrived at your position after seriously considering others. Using words like “might,” “most,” and “somewhat” can help convey this sentiment.
- Emphasize agreement: While the focus of the conversation might be one specific topic, it can be helpful to look for tangential points that you agree on and point them out. For public health, that might look like emphasizing agreement about being concerned for the health of vulnerable family members.
- Acknowledge other perspectives: Paraphrasing what another speaker has said about a particular point can show that you’re listening to them carefully and genuinely trying to understand their perspective. It is not enough to use phrases like “I hear you”— you need to show receipts (e.g., “I hear you, that you’re worried about your daughter getting the vaccine after your aunt had a reaction”).
- Reframe to positive: Framing ideas and messages in a positive way can express that you come in peace. Particularly if you can sense the tone of the interaction becoming adversarial, complimenting something the other person said that impressed you or expressing gratitude for their willingness to even have the conversation can get you back on the same side before you continue.
Using CR to have hard conversations
In March 2023, BIT partnered with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the Louisiana Department of Health to train COVID-19 vaccine canvassers in CR principles. We designed the training to help them learn the skills to apply CR to live conversations in order to build trust with community members (especially those who are hesitant or against vaccines).
The secondary goal in teaching canvassers to apply CR in these interactions was to rebuild trust in public health more generally. Early findings show that CR leads to an interest in future collaboration, indicating that it might improve sentiments between disagreeing parties. Even if one CR-infused interaction didn’t change a community member’s mind on vaccines, it could pave the way for greater confidence in public health in the future.
Over half a day, we trained about 40 canvassers. Participants learned the fundamentals of CR, customized talking points and go-to words and phrases to adapt CR to their own personal style, and practiced using roleplay and feedback sessions.
An example from our in-person workshop for COVID-19 vaccine canvassers.
The COVID-19 vaccine canvassers we trained are excited to use CR in their work this summer, as they speak to communities with low vaccination rates about how to protect themselves.
As the body of evidence supporting CR grows, we’re excited about its potential to foster positive behavior change around other polarized topics. Its principles could be applied to climate change, voter registration, and more.
If a key part of your work is shifting public opinion, how could conversational receptiveness help you? Contact Leah Everist at email@example.com if you’d like to learn more about CR or schedule a training for your team.