Navigating Political Polarization in Times of Crisis: Lessons from the Difficult Conversations Lab

difficult conversation lab

Two study participants have a discussion in the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia. Photo: Peter T. Coleman

By Meredith Smith

This week, 20,000 Germans who hold opposing views on political issues—such as immigration and climate change—met in pairs throughout Germany to speak with one another across the divide. This is part of the My Country Talks initiative, sponsored by Die Zeit, a leading magazine in Germany. The initiative was subsequently launched in cities and towns across the globe, sponsored by a wide variety of media outlets.

“This is an intriguing initiative that the U.S. can learn from,” says Peter T. Coleman, a social psychologist and co-executive director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at Columbia’s Earth Institute.

Coleman is drawn to the kinds of conflicts that are so complicated and divisive they seem almost impossible to solve. In fact, he wrote two books, The Five Percent and Attracted to Conflict, that explain these kinds of conflicts and how they are different from the other 95 percent of conflicts that are more readily resolved.

In anticipation of the launch of My Country Talks, Coleman was interviewed by Die Zeit and Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s biggest and most renowned subscription newspaper. During the interviews, he shared some of the lessons learned and current findings from his own lab at Columbia.

The Difficult Conversations Lab is one of Coleman’s current initiatives to study polarizing moral conflicts, and to see whether and how dialogue can succeed as a tool for reducing tension between opponents on highly politicized issues such as abortion and gun control. His team assesses participants’ opinions on divisive issues, pairs them with rivals, and then invites them to speak together on the issue in the lab. The lab technology allows Coleman’s team to track the discussants’ emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physiological experiences over the course of the conversation, which has revealed new insights into when these interactions go well or go poorly.

Coleman has found that differences in how the topics are framed and presented to discussants in the lab (as pro and con versus as more nuanced and complicated), as well as how the sessions are structured and facilitated (encouraging advocacy and defense of a position versus inquiry, exploration and accuracy in understanding an issue) leads to significant differences in terms of individual’s openness, learning and satisfaction with such encounters.

One of the basic findings Coleman shared is that the more complexity you have in your life – cognitive, emotional, social and cultural – the more tolerant you tend to be, and the better you argue. He recommends that people try to actively engage with one another more, especially with people of other opinions, backgrounds, cultures and horizons.

More tips for addressing polarization and further information about Coleman’s Difficult Conversations Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University are available in the links below.

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