Angry Uncle Review: The Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University

The New York Times is ground zero for angry uncle advice. Here is the second of the three (yes, three) articles they ran this year about how to deal with your Fox-watchin’ uncle at Thanksgiving. This one takes a scientific approach, with advice from Peter Coleman, the director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict at Columbia University:

To discover what conditions are most likely to lead to positive outcomes, Dr. Coleman and his colleagues set up the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia Teacher’s College, where hundreds of conversations between people holding different political positions have been held since 2007.

….One participant, Amanda Ripley, a freelance journalist, said she learned that it is important not to oversimplify the issue, and to acknowledge that there is no single right or wrong answer….The researchers wanted to see if exposure to a complex argument before the session made the participants more thoughtful and open to considering other perspectives. Ms. Ripley said that was the case in her interaction. “If you give people something complicated to read before a conversation, it tends to go better. People are more open to information that doesn’t fit into their pre-existing narratives,” she observed.

….One of the most hopeful — if counterintuitive — findings from conflict resolution research is that most conflicts do eventually get amicably resolved. In his book “The Five Percent,” Dr. Coleman cites a study by the peace researchers Paul Diehl and Gary Goertz that shows that 95 percent of over a thousand international rivalries that they looked at since 1816 were successfully worked out through a process of compromise and negotiation. However, roughly 5 percent — like the Arab-Israeli conflict — stubbornly resist solution.

Science doesn’t yet know a lot about why some conflicts prove to be so intractable, while others are more easily solved, Dr. Coleman says….One way to improve the chances of each side actually hearing the other out is for individuals to talk more personally. “Don’t try to represent or defend a political party or class of people,” Ms. Parsa advised. “Speak for yourself. We ask folks to tell stories about their own life experience and how they have come to the views that they hold.”

This is … not so useful? First, what are the odds that your uncle is willing to read “something complicated” before settling down to spew racist crap that he learned last night from Tucker Carlson? Second, I’d put Thanksgiving feuds in the same class as the Arab-Israeli conflict: battles between people who know each other well and fight about the same things over and over and over. And third, the whole point of political arguments is that they’re about entire classes of people. If you’re speaking for yourself, it’s gossip or kvetching or whatever, but it’s not a political fight.

Given all this, I’d sort of like to dole out a negative score, but the best I can do is zero uncles.


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