Some notes from the piece “Complicating the Narratives” by Amanda Ripley / Solutions Journalism Network about the current US divide.
Paraphrased: Conflict is important. The power of stories is to help people find a way through that conflict.
The goal is not to make people agree, or share the other side’s belief.
The goal includes to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation, to “help people regain their peripheral vision”.
” If we want to learn the truth, we have to find new ways to listen. If we want our best work to have consequences, we have to be heard. “Anyone who values truth,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind, “should stop worshipping reason.””
I think that there are many parallels in South Africa, and for me personally relevant, in the engineering and water space, with the kind of divide the USA is currently experiencing. It is called an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book The Five Percent. In this dynamic, people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.
“”Intractable conflicts feed upon themselves. The more we try to stop the conflict, the worse it gets. These feuds “seem to have a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their ruin,” Coleman writes. “We often think we understand these conflicts and can choose how to react to them, that we have options. We are usually mistaken, however.””
Articles that encourage conversation emphasizes the complexity of the issue, rather than describing it as a binary issue. It explains many different points of view, with more nuance and compassion. It read less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes.
These articles and the conversations they start don’t solve the debate, but they do lead to a more nuanced understanding and more willingness to continue the conversation. Complexity is contagious, it turns out, which is wonderful news for humanity. (paraphrased)
As engineers, scientists, researchers, we want to present an unbiased, neutral truth. That doesn’t exist and sometimes we even acknowledge that, but then we think that if we focus more and more on a tinier and tinier thing then somewhere we will reach a nugget of absolute truth. But we don’t live in that tiny place. The world – water management, for example, is a place of intractable conflict. We need to “complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.”
(Are engineers part of this group of people?)
“The main idea of complicating the narrative is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. This does not mean calling advocates for both sides and quoting both; that is simplicity, and it usually backfires in the midst of conflict. “Just providing the other side will only move people further away,” Coleman says. Nor does it mean creating a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and their opponents. That is just simplicity in a cheap suit. Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose.”
Adding complexity to stories is like moving from a one-night stand to a long-term relationship.
Here’s six strategies to help do that (Amanda’s piece talks to this in more detail)
1. Amplify Contradictions
Ask open ended questions, and interrogate contradictions gently.
2. Widen the Lens
Position the issue in a bigger conversation. Place it in context.
People generally want to be part of a conversation that is bigger than themselves.
Make the conflict into an inquiry. Make the story more interesting, not less.
Great storytelling often zooms in on individual incident; but zoom out again before concluding.
3. Ask Questions that Get to People’s Motivations
The gentle why
Find out who people are and why they do the things they do. Get beneath the surface.
Six moral foundations form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.
When you touch on more of these foundations, you motivate more people.
“People tend to keep describing their stories in the same way,” McCulloch says. “In mediation, you try to flip that over and say, ‘How did you come to that? Why is this story important to you? How do you feel when you tell it to me?’” Those questions may seem touchy feely, but it’s surprising how rarely people get asked them. “You see people kind of blink and go, ‘I never thought of it that way.’”
4. Listen more, and better
As scientists, researchers, our stories don’t matter if we are not believed. “Trust precedes facts,” (Eve Pearlman, co-founder of Spaceship Media)
Ask important questions multiple times, in different contexts. Usually there will be different answers. Usually each answer is true — and each represents a different piece of the story. “It’s so easy to go in with the thought that you know exactly what is going on — which shuts down other possibilities.”
Here are some specific questions that mediators suggest to ask to get underneath the usual talking points:
- What is oversimplified about this issue?
- How has this conflict affected your life?
- What do you think the other side wants?
- What’s the question nobody is asking?
- What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?
Care more about the bits and pieces that don’t fit, the people whose perspectives are inconvenient.
‘Signposts’ include words like “always” or “never,” any sign of emotion, the use of metaphors, statements of identity, words that get repeated or any signs of confusion or ambiguity. When you hear one of these clues, identify it explicitly and ask for more.
Double check. Gary Friedman, one of the godfathers of mediation, calls this “looping for understanding,” and he suggests doing it every time you feel you’ve heard someone say one thing that is important to him or her. ‘So what I hear you saying is … Is that right?’
“When people feel heard and seen as they wish to be heard and seen, they relax their guard,” says Melissa Weintraub, a rabbi and the co-founder of Resetting the Table. “It’s both very simple and very hard to accomplish. We have to give them the most powerful and eloquent articulation of their own thinking.” Then and only then will people even begin to consider information that does not fit their usual narratives. In fact, this is one of the only ways to get people to listen when they are emotional or entrenched in a particular worldview. Humans need to be heard before they will listen.
Take emotions seriously. Acknowledge when you see them, kindly, maybe share your own story of when you felt the same, articulate the shared feeling.
Maintain curiosity. Restore your curiosity by tapping into the wider public’s.
5. Expose People to the Other Tribe
Once people have met and kind of liked each other, they have a harder time caricaturing one another.
Genuine human connections permanently complicate our narratives. Communities with more cross-cutting relationships tend to be less violent and more tolerant.
Questions to engage a divided community:
- What do you think the other community thinks of you?
- What do you think of the other community?
- What do you want the other community to know about you?
- What do you want to know about the other community?
6. Counter Confirmation Bias (Carefully)
Confirmation bias: believing news that confirms our pre-existing narratives and dismissing everything else.
Ideas have a stronger chance of being accepted if it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences the intended audience holds, or comes from a source they trust and like. This gives a sense of cognitive ease. So one way to gently counter confirmation bias is to create a little cognitive ease first: for example, use sources from a wide range of tribes.
Use graphics instead of text.
Create a feeling of hope. Uncomfortable information that could generate fear is more palatable to people if it comes with a side of specific actions that people can take in response.
Don’t repeat a false belief in an effort to correct it (we’re like dogs here, tell a dog it can’t get on the couch, it will only remember ‘get on the couch’. Rather try, look this lovely rug on the floor!)
People don’t want to be at each other’s throats. People don’t want to be seen as callous. We want to be understood deeply.
Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true; but we also share a desire for understanding.
We need to learn to amplify contradictions and widen the lens on paralyzing debates. We need to ask questions that uncover people’s motivations. All of us could learn to listen better. As researchers have established in hundreds of experiments over the past half-century, the way to counter the kind of tribal prejudice we are seeing is to expose people to the other tribe or new information in ways they can accept. When conflict is cliché, complexity is breaking news.