Get better at disagreement with this four-step "receptiveness recipe."

By Brett Beasley

Here's how a new research-based formula—generated with the help of machine learning—can keep conflicts from escalating out of control.


Disagreements are inevitable. We encounter them in our boardrooms and in our courtrooms. They are even in our living rooms. (A study conducted among parents in the U.K. found they spend, on average, 49 minutes per day arguing with their children.) With all this practice disagreeing, you might think we would get good at it.

Unfortunately, that's not the picture of disagreement we find in psychological studies of difficult conversations. Far from becoming adept at difficult conversations, we exert a lot of our time and energy trying to avoid them, psychologists find. We use the internet not to foster healthy disagreements but to retreat into echo chambers and filter bubbles. And when disagreement becomes unavoidable, we regularly fail to bridge the moral empathy gap that divides us from other people. We often become even more entrenched in our views than we were before the disagreement. Or worse: We become reactive and rush to negative judgments about the "other side."

The examples we see in politics and the media tend to reinforce the idea that disagreements are a zero-sum (win-lose, rather than win-win) situation, and as a result over 60% of Americans (whether Republicans or Democrats) now see fellow citizens who are members of the other political party as a serious threat.

Conversational Receptiveness

Fortunately, recent studies show that while disagreements are inevitable, harm to our relationships, our organizations, and our society is not. In fact, researchers at Harvard and the University of British Columbia have recently proven that we can disagree more effectively using a formula they call "conversational receptiveness." It consists of four key elements:

Conversational Receptiveness With Descriptions

Conversational receptiveness is all about signaling your genuine interest in the other person and his or her views. Start by showing that you're not just hearing but listening and understanding what the other person is saying. Try a statement that begins with "I understand that..." instead of making your point right away. Second, look for areas in which you might agree. These areas could be very small, but a little affirmation of the other person's views goes a long way. After all, most of us recognize the same five moral foundations, even if we prioritize them differently.

Next, focus on positive statements. Instead of linguistic markers like "no," "shouldn't," and "can't," see if you can frame your statements positively with "yes," "should," and "can." At the same time, pay attention to the scope of your claims. By being more specific and narrow in your claims, you will avoid sounding like a bombastic know-it-all who is closed to other viewpoints.

Their receptiveness recipe validated some of the strategies practiced by political canvassers, such as the ABC (Affirm, Bridge, Connect) strategy shown here that was developed by Youth on Board's Listening Works Project.

Do you think you're receptive enough already and don't need this recipe? The study's authors would suggest you take a harder look at your behavior. They found that when it comes to receptiveness, we are poor judges of ourselves. While we might feel satisfied that we are receptive enough, what really matters is whether we actually signal receptiveness to other people—people who don't know our motivations and intentions the way we do.

That's why the researchers who developed the receptiveness recipe used actual disagreements: They paired people with opposing views and instructed them to talk about hot button issues. Then they used a machine learning algorithm to analyze the responses of those participants whose partners said they were receptive.

But the researchers didn't stop there. Armed with their receptiveness recipe, they began using it to teach study participants to disagree better. They found that those who learned the recipe did, in fact, gain higher marks in receptiveness from their conversation partners. Not only were they more persuasive, they also achieved a host of other benefits: Their partners saw them as better teammates, advisors, and representatives of their workplace.

Put it in Practice

Here's how to stop avoiding disagreements and start improving your relationships, your organization, and your community by becoming more receptive:

Don't trust your instincts. Chances are you're not as receptive as you think—which also means you're not reaping the full benefits that receptiveness could bring to your work and your life. Try to get an outsider's perspective—not just on your desires or inclinations toward receptiveness, but about whether your behaviors really make your receptiveness clear.

Approach disagreement as an art. Since disagreement is inevitable, you have many opportunities to improve—so long as you approach disagreement as something you want to get better at. While the receptiveness recipe gives you a blueprint for how to disagree constructively, it is no shortcut. Study participants say it requires ongoing effort and commitment to keep using receptiveness techniques even after they've been learned.

Make receptiveness contagious. Foster conversation about receptiveness by talking openly about your desire to be more receptive and about the receptiveness strategies that work for you. And next time you approach a difficult conversation, give the recipe a try. It doesn't require you to gain the other person's cooperation in advance, but when one partner in a conversation begins to practice receptiveness, researchers have found, the other partner often reciprocates.

For many of us, conversational receptiveness may feel counterintuitive and uncomfortable at first. We may worry that we're giving up something, that we're sure to lose a debate, an advantage, or a piece of our power or status by opening ourselves up more to other people and their views. Nevertheless, though it sounds paradoxical, research proves what many of the best and most influential leaders know: To receive what you want, start by being receptive.

Related Content

Ethics in Investing: A Discussion with Kristen Bitterly Michell (ND '02)

Ethics in Investing: A Discussion with Kristen Bitterly Michell (ND '02)

Kristen Bitterly Michell (ND '02), the Managing Director and Head of Investing Solutions at Citi Global Wealth, sat down with us to discuss the industry. Kristen was a featured speaker of the 2024 Women’s Investing Summit (WIS) hosted by the Notre Dame Institute for Global Investing (NDIGI). She offers…

Rejuvenation at Work:  Leveraging Connections for Employee Engagement

Rejuvenation at Work: Leveraging Connections for Employee Engagement

Resolutions, diets, the latest exercise routines - we are inundated with “new year, new you” messages each January. This time of year also marks a bit of a reset at work - many of us return to the office after extra time with loved ones over the holidays.

As we consider our priorities and well-being,…