Shifting Conversation Dynamics


I’ve been thinking a lot about divisions lately because the ones in our country seem to only grow deeper. Even in a national crisis we’ve been unable to find common ground.


There was a time when people believed the internet and social media would unite us. We’ll be able to learn from anywhere! Telemedicine will help rural communities! Scientific collaboration! Information at our fingertips! People with similar interests will be able to find one another!


A lot of that has come to fruition, and people have found each other, just not always in the way it was envisioned. True, we can discover others - who might share our love for an obscure Tibetan poet or with whom we might share a third great grandfather (hey, we’re cousins!) - but it’s also true that conspiracy theorists and white supremacists now easily discover and amplify each other. Our ability to join up with each other based on similarities has also allowed us to create nearly impenetrable bubbles.


One of the worst elements of the internet and social media is the freedom a screen gives people to say things – either in content or tone - they’d never dream of saying to a human being standing in front of them. Sometimes I read exchanges on Facebook or Twitter and just think, Yikes. We’re doomed. When we write emails and texts to people we know, most of us try hard to get the tone right, often throwing in exclamation marks (yes!) and friendly emojis to convey amiability. On social media, the id triumphs: when in doubt, take the most aggressive tack possible.


All of which leads me to an interesting New York Times article/interactive from back in May. The interactive asked readers to choose the best responses in a hypothetical conversation with a vaccine-hesitant person, but the lessons seem useful for any conversation one might have with anyone about anything. I was delighted to find that the strategies for effective communication and bridge-building aligned well with our indicators of Radically Reimagined Relationships (RRR). You may want to take a look yourself before you continue reading: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/20/opinion/covid-19-vaccine-chatbot.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.


The article/interactive ultimately presented four main research-based strategies to think about in our interactions with others. All of them require us to see the other person as a person and to perhaps tone down a tendency to judge and instruct.


1. Safety and Rapport. Building rapport doesn’t mean agreeing (especially if it’s something you find repugnant), but it does mean withholding expressions of judgment until the other person has had a chance to express themselves. It can mean asking questions to understand their position or concerns more fully, or genuinely trying to find some areas where you can empathize or agree. When we talk about RRR in schools, safety and rapport are very much a part of our core indicator of Connection and Belonging. Without an authentic relationship, we are unlikely to change anyone’s mind or help anyone learn.


2. Respect for Autonomy. In terms of vaccinations, it’s clear that we each must make our own choices about our healthcare. Much as I might like to, I can’t force anyone to get a shot they don’t want or don’t trust. (Our desire for autonomy is built into our DNA. Ask any toddler.) So, when we want to persuade someone of something – anything - they will need to feel our respect for their autonomy. Respect for autonomy could fit under a few of our indicators of RRR, but it might fit best under Agency and Trust. When we recognize that our students and colleagues have their own opinions, desires, and ambitions, we are far less likely to hand down imperious directives and far more likely to start a conversation.


3. Understanding and Compassion. Genuine empathy and curiosity might not immediately cause someone to come around to your view, but they are traits that help form relationships. Over time, relationships are a powerful tool for growth and change. With RRR, we talk about this idea most under our indicator, Dispositions of Humility, Care and Curiosity. When we bring humility to an interaction, we are far more able to think kindly about the other person and consider their points of view. Students are people. They make mistakes. Our colleagues are people. They won’t be perfect. We’re human, too. We won’t be perfect either.


4. Collaborative Learning. People don’t learn or change by being lectured to. Learning is strongest when we are doing something, talking about it with others, and experiencing it for ourselves. In the vaccine interactive, responses like, “I was worried about that, too 😖 Can I share some stuff that made me feel better?” were posited to work much more effectively than responses like, “Wait, wait, wait 😐are you an anti-vaxxer?” In terms of RRR, I’d put this strategy under Shared Purpose and Responsibility, and I’d also include it with Authentic Learning Experiences. When we are collaborating, we are far less likely to try to win the debate or “own” the other side. We can still make our points, but we might make them differently.


I found the interactive helpful. While I was able to choose the most effective answers pretty easily with the options laid out in front of me, I was also able to recognize a few types of responses I might employ if I weren’t thinking hard about it.


If we want to change someone’s mind about something, our time is probably better spent in a real conversation than online - but in either case, it couldn’t hurt to evaluate our conversational content and style against these strategies before uttering any words or pressing Send.