A careful choice of words can help people in contentious conversations communicate their willingness to listen and consider opposing viewpoints. Communicating this receptiveness leads to greater interpersonal understanding and respect, less conflict escalation, and the potential for future collaboration.
Individuals engaged in contentious conversations about controversial issues rarely communicate to others in the discussion that they are willing to respectfully consider opposing viewpoints—what social scientists “receptiveness.” One reason may be that these individuals are indeed not “receptive” to contrary opinions. Another reason, however, may be that they do not know how to communicate their receptiveness. A series of studies by researchers from Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the University of British Columbia revealed the challenges and complexity in communicating receptiveness.
In one study, for example, participants self-evaluated their receptiveness to opposing viewpoints, then wrote a response to a statement with which they disagreed. A separate group of participants rated whether the responses indicated the writer was open to and respectful of opposing views.
Analyzing the rated responses, the researchers identified certain words and phrases—linguistic cues—that signaled receptiveness. These included:
In contrast, the following were identified as linguistic cues signaling non-receptiveness:
The researchers used this analysis to create a linguistic algorithm (or “recipe” as they also called it), which they included in their further studies of receptiveness.
In another study, for example, the algorithm revealed a double standard: When rating someone else on receptiveness, participants looked for the linguistic cues identified in the algorithm. When rating themselves, however, participants mistakenly believed formalities (e.g., using the other person’s title, refraining from swearing) was enough to indicate openness to opposing views.
The research also revealed the consequences of communicating or not communicating one’s receptiveness. The research showed that participants were less likely to want to work with non-receptive partners in the future, did not trust these partners’ judgment, and did not feel that these partners should represent their organization. On the other hand, when participants successfully conveyed their openness to opposing viewpoints, their partners saw them more positively in terms of potential collaboration, judgment, and representing the organization.
These consequences were further explored in a study in which the researchers used online conversations between Wikipedia editors about changes to articles. In Wikipedia editorial conversations, personal attacks by editors are flagged, giving the researchers a way to identify conflict escalation. The researchers did indeed find a connection between lack of receptiveness and future conflict. That is, conversations between Wikipedia editors who signaled their openness to opposing views were less likely to lead to personal attacks.
In the final of the series of studies, the researchers taught a subset of a group of participants the linguistic cues from the algorithm, and then, as in the first study, asked “raters” to evaluate the responses of all participants. The results of the study showed that the responders who had received the algorithm instructions were evaluated as more receptive—thereby indicating that receptiveness can be taught.
This research has practical applications for organizational leaders who are seeking to improve their teambuilding and overall leadership effectiveness. One of the fundamental ways to improve teamwork is to ensure an environment and culture in which opposing viewpoints are recognized and accepted. This applies to exchanges among team members as well as exchanges between leaders and their subordinates.
The research has implications for professional development and leadership development efforts to increase the respectful exchange of opposing viewpoints. The first is that individuals misjudge how others view their receptiveness. The second is that individuals can be taught how to successfully signal receptiveness through the use of the algorithm developed in the research. Thus, professional and leadership development programs should be designed to show participants that even the best intentions to be open to other opinions will fall flat until they learn how to use the right language in their exchanges with team members and subordinates.
Michael Yeomans’ profile at Imperial College
Julia Minson’s profile at Harvard Kennedy School
Hanna Collin’s profile at Harvard Business School
Frances Chen’s profile at University of British Columbia
Francesca Gino’s profile at Harvard Business School
Conversational receptiveness: Improving engagement with opposing views. Michael Yeomans, Julia Minson, Hanne Collins, Frances Chen, Francesca Gino. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (September 2020).
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