That’s a problem, according to Jacob Teeny, an assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg.
“We have this kind of everyday political polarization where people keep getting farther and farther apart in their perceptions of the other side,” Teeny said, noting that, if this trend continues, it will get harder and harder to collectively solve our society’s most pressing issues.
On this episode of The Insightful Leader, Teeny breaks down how to talk with the people we disagree with—with a little help from someone he disagrees with a lot: his dad.
Laura PAVIN: You’ve heard it over and over again, but it’s true: the U.S. is more polarized, politically, than ever. A month before the 2020 election, according to the Pew Research Center, about 9 out of 10 people from both parties said that a victory by the other side would cause “lasting harm” to the U.S.
Jacob TEENY: We have this kind of everyday political polarization where people keep getting farther and farther apart in their perceptions of the other side.
PAVIN: That’s Jacob Teeny. He’s an assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg. He studies the psychology of persuasion. And he talked about this very issue at a TEDx Talk in Evanston. And in that talk, he blamed this divide on this one simple thing. Here he is at that talk:
TEENY: People don’t talk to people they disagree with! That’s right! In fact, two separate studies showed that Thanksgiving dinners are anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes shorter when the guest list includes people with mixed versus the same political beliefs.
PAVIN: His talk is how we got to thinking about the topic. The scary thing is that Teeny says our failure to talk is something that carries consequences for society, at large, of course—in the form of government inaction, potential for political violence, and a fracturing society. But the divide is affecting businesses, too, in that they’re often expected to take “sides” on hot-button issues publicly, which could alienate half of their customers and have a pretty chilling effect on the workplace, too.
TEENY: If half of, you know, your employees feel silenced, like they can’t really voice their opinions or they have to walk on eggshells to share anything, well, that can inhibit kind of the creativity and innovation that emerges from it.
PAVIN: This is The Insightful Leader. I’m Laura Pavin. This episode, though, rather than delving into these broader social issues (ones we don’t often have a lot of control over), we figured we would start small. What can we do, on an individual level, to have more conversations with people we disagree with?
Ultimately, the goal is that you and the other person can see that there is a rational human on the other side of an issue. And hopefully, by demonstrating this type of healthy debate, you inspire those around you to seek out this understanding, too.
So today, Teeny tells us how to have a “good” political conversation with those we disagree with. The key to this, he says, is to make sure the timing of the conversation is right, to go in with the right motivations, and to consider perspective-taking.
And we’ll get a little glimpse into Teeny’s lived experience with these types of discussions, with a little help from a guest that he disagrees with … a lot.
PAVIN (on Zoom call): Hello?
GEORGE TEENY: Hello, we can hear you.
PAVIN: We hear from Teeny’s dad.
PAVIN: First things first: we are going to talk about how people who disagree on issues can have good conversations about them.
But this does not mean that everyone has to have these conversations about every issue. Depending on who you are—and particularly for members of marginalized groups—some topics might feel really uncomfortable, or even dangerous. Teeny acknowledges that and says that you should not force yourself to have these conversations—particularly if they put you in a vulnerable situation.
But for the people who are up for a healthy debate, there are strategies to keep in mind.
Now, what does a “good” conversation between people who disagree with each other even look like? To Teeny, it should allow for people to bring up their respective points and be heard by the other person without coming to some kind of verbal blow.
Having this type of calm conversation is something Teeny has always been really good at. Of course, he more clearly remembers the ones where he reigned victorious. Like this one time, with his dad …
TEENY: We were in a sushi restaurant: me, my dad, and my sister, and I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but I was jus like playing basketball and you’re in the zone, and I was just making comments and, you know, rebuttals. And at one point my dad was just totally stumped and he was like, “That’s a good point. I don’t have I don’t have a good answer for that.”
PAVIN: Do you remember that one?
GEORGE: That one I do not recall.
PAVIN: That’s Teeny’s dad, George Teeny. We’ll call him “George” and we’ll call Jake “Teeny” from here on out. Teeny talked a lot about George in his TEDx Evanston talk as kind of a test case for how to approach political conversations. George is conservative and Jake is liberal, but they’ve managed to maintain a healthy relationship with healthy debate, even in today’s polarized climate. How do they do this? Well, they usually try to make sure that they have their conversations when they’re feeling up to it.
It’s actually our first step to having less heated conversations with the people we disagree with: do it at the right time, as in, do it when you’re both feeling like you have the energy to take it on.
TEENY: Make sure that the person doesn’t feel like that conversation is sprung on them, or it’s the end of the day after a long day of work. Because it does take some emotional strength to kind of, you know, suppress some of those immediate reactions or negativity you might hear at an opinion that’s different than yours.
PAVIN: If you feel like a touchy conversation’s been thrown onto you at a time when you’re not ready to have it, you’ll probably have a shorter fuse, and it’ll be harder to have the patience to hear the other person out.
Now remember, Teeny is a social psychologist who studies persuasion. But he also has personal experience with this—with his dad George, of course.
TEENY: So for example, before, I was chatting with my dad and I thought we were just going to have kind of a casual catch-up conversation. And out of the blue he was like, “did you hear about the State of the Union address?” I was like, all right, we’re gonna do a little bit of a political talk. All right. And then I made the mistake of sharing the one feature I knew that was very liberal-favoring and conservative-damning, and then it started into a whole back and forth. And finally I just had to be, “Dad, dad, you know, I love you, but I didn’t want to talk about politics on this talk.”
PAVIN: And so they left it at that. And picked the conversation back up later, when they felt much more able to talk with level heads.
The way George looks at this approach—where you step back when things get too dicey—is that it prioritizes the human relationship a little more than people otherwise tend to in these kinds of conversations.
GEORGE: You know, my relationship with my kids is far more important than any political side I have. Now, again, that doesn’t mean I don’t like to have an honest debate. I mean, I love to get them together and start talking. And sometimes they will say, “Dad, I don’t wanna hear it. I don’t wanna hear it.” And okay, I might throw on one more dig, and then I drop off. But I believe he doesn’t hold anything against me, and I certainly don’t hold anything against him.
PAVIN: Of course, this loving father–child relationship isn’t a baseline you’re going to have with every person you debate. But at the same time, Teeny says that we could all benefit from starting out our conversations with the intention that you are able to talk to this person again. Because, at a 5,000-foot-level, Americans need to if they want to see eye-to-eye on more issues.
PAVIN: So, first things first: when you talk to someone about a political issue that you both disagree on, make sure you’re having it at the right time when everyone is feeling calm and ready to engage.
The second key to having better political conversations is to always go into it with the right motive.
TEENY: The goal of these conversations should be an open exchange of perspectives—not necessarily an attempt to change perspectives. Because the first step to any form of attitude change, whether that is in politics, ice-cream flavors, or phone brands, is simply being open to hearing the other side.
PAVIN: When you go into these conversations, your motive should be to seek out the truth and to hear people out in pursuit of the truth.
The caveat here is that this isn’t easy. People are just not going into conversations thinking they have something to learn from the other side. Teeny did some research to get to the bottom of why it is so hard to chat with our political opposites, with the goal of hopefully squeezing some tangible lessons out of it.
Here’s how he approached it.
TEENY: One of the first things we set out to do was just trying to get people’s own intuitions about why they avoid these conversations. So we collected qualitative responses from like 300 different people saying, “Why do you avoid these conversations?”
PAVIN: From there, Teeny said, several themes emerged. Like, they feared the other person would become emotionally agitated, or that it would be too difficult to change their mind. So the researchers took these themes, sent them to a nationally representative sample of people, and asked them to rank, in order, how important these themes were in terms of deciding whether or not to engage with a person. The result?
TEENY: By far the one that was more impactful than any of the others was this idea of believing the other person isn’t going to genuinely listen to what you have to say.
PAVIN: What he found was that people avoided discussing political topics with people on the other side of the aisle because they felt like the other person would automatically close themself off to hearing them at all.
But Teeny says that, if you go into the conversation making it clear that you’re interested in hearing them out, and hearing what they believe to be the truth, they’ll be more likely to show an interest in what you have to say, too.
One of the easiest ways to do this, Teeny says, is to simply ask about the other person’s opinion. Ask them to explain why they believe what they do. Doing that should get the other person’s guard down and hopefully get them in a truth-seeking mindset, too. The goal here is to not try to persuade or verbally kick the other person’s butt, so to speak.
TEENY: If you try to jump right into the persuasion part, you’re skipping the most important step of just kind of getting them open to the idea that there are reasonable and valid perspectives on the other side. Then once you get through that and through multiple conversations, then maybe there can ultimately be some influence about where they stand and what they do. But if you don’t have them kind of bought in to at least being open to hearing another perspective, you’re not going to get anywhere.
PAVIN: So, again, this second key to having a better conversation with someone you disagree with is to go in with a truth-seeking mindset yourself. Genuinely asking someone why they believe what they believe is a good way to get their guard down and it’s more likely to get them interested in what you have to say, too. And with that understanding, your conversations will go a lot farther.
PAVIN: Finally, to have a respectful and good conversation with people you disagree with, you’ll want to consider using something called “analogic perspective-taking.”
Analogic perspective-taking is where you try to help someone with a very different perspective than yours try to get a better sense of where you’re coming from so that you might get to a more productive place in your conversation.
For example, Teeny points to a 2016 study where researchers hired a team of canvassers to go door-to-door in Miami-Dade County in Florida to see if they could change the minds of voters who did not favor protections for transgender people.
And what they did was they prompted the voters to remember a time when they were treated negatively just for being different. When they followed up with these voters months later, they found that there was a sizeable reduction in negativity towards the idea that transgender people should have equal rights.
That was an effective use of analogic perspective-taking, Teeny says.
TEENY: So rather than just saying, “Can you imagine this?” Which they can’t, you say, “Okay, you are familiar with this experience, right? You’ve had this personal, you know, encounter that led to these emotions or these thoughts. Now just switch out your context with what this person is feeling, and it’s the exact same thing.” And now all of a sudden people can be like, “oh yeah, you’re right. Those emotions do make sense.”
PAVIN: In this way, analogic perspective-taking will get you both on a somewhat similar wavelength. It’s a good way to avoid falling into our more toxic habits, Teeny says. In particular, it can help us avoid something called the homogeneity effect.
TEENY: Where essentially we see everyone in the outgroup as the same person or the same type, or they share the same beliefs. “Conservatives all think this; liberals all think that.” And when we start talking to generalities, we start kind of ascribing some of the most extreme and negative characteristics to everyone in the group. You know, from your own group, there is so much variation in these beliefs. So why wouldn’t there be that same variation in those other groups?
PAVIN: When we talk to someone we disagree with politically, and we all try to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person, we can better feel for the other side and see that we all contain nuance. In other words, we can better see that we’re all just humans.
PAVIN: It’s not always going to be easy to follow these rules of engagement in your interactions. Having your conversations when the mood is right, going in with a truth-seeking motive, and getting someone to feel for a situation that is so far removed from their own reality—it’s a practice. And sometimes? You’ll have to admit that someone has a point. Or, in George Teeny’s case, that you were wrong altogether. You see, he used to send out these emails …
GEORGE: I would send out commercial emails to a variety of people. And the commercial emails would lend themselves towards conservative ideas.
PAVIN: Commercial emails, I should say, are George’s way of saying he sent people an email that contained information he didn’t write himself. It was either forwarded to him or contained ideas from somewhere else. But the ideas were always conservative-leaning.
And so, Teeny saw one of these emails, did some background reading, and realized, ”Dad is wrong.” So he told him, George looked it up, and saw that Teeny was right. So George issued a retraction. And then George sent out another email with some bad info, got corrected again. And again. And again.
GEORGE: And I say, “You know, George, you may hit one out of three or two out of five that is right, and the other ones are wrong. Stop doing it.” And so since then, I haven’t sent much of that to anybody. I now send out cartoons.
TEENY: I mean, but I mean, I think that speaks to something that, you know, I really respect about you dad. And something that I hope to emulate in myself … is that if someone corrects me on something, it’s not my job to try to dig in my heels and try to prove that I’m right and you’re wrong, but to recognize, okay, you know, I made a mistake here. You’ve always been big about kind of owning up to your responsibilities and your dues. And I think we need more of that in these kinds of discussions: People’s willingness to be like, “That’s a good point.” You know? “That’s a good point.”
PAVIN: If we can’t talk to each other, we will continue to feel like people on the other side of an issue are so unrecognizable from the America you thought you knew. That’s not good for a society that needs some sort of agreement to solve big issues. If we don’t try to connect on some level, then our Congress will continue to sound like, well, this:
CONGRESS ARGUING: [lots of crosstalk]
PAVIN: And so, having better, calmer conversations with people you disagree with is an important exercise that Teeny believes is going to be really important going forward.
In the end, hopefully, you’ll feel like George when he’s debating with his kids.
GEORGE: As much as I’d like them to swing a little bit more my way, I understand what their real world’s like. And so, uh, they know where I’m at. I know where they’re at. And life goes on.
PAVIN: This episode of The Insightful Leader was written by me, Laura Pavin. It was mixed by Sarah Hopefl. It was produced by me, Jessica Love, Emily Stone, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. Special thanks to Jacob Teeny. Want more The Insightful Leader episodes? You can find us on iTunes, Spotify or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another episode of The Insightful Leader podcast.