Complicating the Narratives
What if journalists covered controversial issues differently — based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious?
By Amanda Ripley [updated Jan 11, 2019]
Last summer, 60 Minutes brought 14 people — half Republicans, half Democrats — to a converted power plant in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. The goal was to encourage Americans to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Oprah Winfrey led the conversation, her debut as a 60 Minutes Special Correspondent — and her return to TV news, where she’d started her career as a Baltimore anchor four decades earlier.
It was an extraordinary opportunity. For three hours, nine cameras captured the group’s conversation about Twitter, President Trump, health care and the prospect of a new civil war. The crew even built a special table, just for the occasion. The edited 16-minute segment would represent the first of a series of planned 60 Minutes shows focused on a divided America. It was a chance for a respected news outlet to go beyond the clichés and name-calling and excavate richer, deeper truths, at a time of profound division in America.
In the end, that was not what happened. The episode drew nearly 15 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched TV show of the week, according to Nielsen ratings. But the on-air conversation was strangely dull and superficial.
First, a heavyset man named Tom said he loved Trump more every day; next, a blonde woman named Jennifer said Trump made her feel sick to her stomach. Later, Winfrey went around the table asking each person for one word to describe the typical Trump voter, then repeating their answers. “Frustrated,” said Tom. “Frustrated,” said Winfrey.
What went wrong? How could one of the most successful, relatable interviewers in American history create such uninspired television?
Deep in their bones, talk-show hosts (like journalists generally) understand certain things about human psychology: we know how to grab the brain’s attention and stimulate fear, sadness or anger. We can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories require conflict, characters and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations.
As politicians have become more polarized, we have increasingly allowed ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults instead of exposing their motivations. Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation. Long before the 2016 election, the mainstream news media lost the trust of the public, creating an opening for misinformation and propaganda. If the purpose of journalism is to “see the public into fuller existence,” as Jay Rosen once wrote, it’s hard to conclude that we are succeeding.
“Conflict is important. It’s what moves a democracy forward,” says journalist Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media, which helps media outlets engage divided communities. “But as long as journalism is content to let conflict sit like that, journalism is abdicating the power it has to help people find a way through that conflict.”
But what else can we do with conflict, besides letting it sit? We’re not advocates, and we shouldn’t be in the business of making people feel better. Our mission is not a diplomatic one. So what options does that leave?
To find out, I spent the past three months interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years, writing books and articles for Time, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and all kinds of places, and I did not know these lessons. After spending more than 50 hours in training for various forms of dispute resolution, I realized that I’ve overestimated my ability to quickly understand what drives people to do what they do. I have overvalued reasoning in myself and others and undervalued pride, fear and the need to belong. I’ve been operating like an economist, in other words — an economist from the 1960s.
For decades, economists assumed that human beings were reasonable actors, operating in a rational world. When people made mistakes in free markets, rational behavior would, it was assumed, generally prevail. Then, in the 1970s, psychologists like Daniel Kahneman began to challenge those assumptions. Their experiments showed that humans are subject to all manner of biases and illusions.
“We are influenced by completely automatic things that we have no control over, and we don’t know we’re doing it,” as Kahneman put it. The good news was that these irrational behaviors are also highly predictable. So economists have gradually adjusted their models to account for these systematic human quirks.
Journalism has yet to undergo this awakening. We like to think of ourselves as objective seekers of truth. Which is why most of us have simply doubled down in recent years, continuing to do more of the same kind of journalism, despite mounting evidence that we are not having the impact we once had. We continue to collect facts and capture quotes as if we are operating in a linear world.
But it’s becoming clear that we cannot FOIA our way out of this problem. 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.”
We need to find ways to help our audiences leave their foxholes and consider new ideas. So we have a responsibility to use all the tools we can find — including the lessons of psychology.
“It’s time to stop making excuses,” as Nobel-prize winning economist Richard Thaler wrote in his book Misbehaving. He was speaking to economists but he could have been addressing journalists. “We need an enriched approach…that acknowledges the existence and relevance of Humans.”
Your Brain in Conflict
Researchers have a name for the kind of divide America is currently experiencing. They call this an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book The Five Percent, and it’s very similar to the kind of wicked feuds that emerge in about one out of every 20 conflicts worldwide. 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.
In this hypervigilant state, we feel an involuntary need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.
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.”
Once we get drawn in, the conflict takes control. Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room. “Over time, people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” according to training literature from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people talk across profound differences in the Middle East and the U.S.
The cost of intractable conflict is also predictable. “[E]veryone loses,” writes Resetting the Table’s co-founder Eyal Rabinovitch. “Such conflicts undermine the dignity and integrity of all involved and stand as obstacles to creative thinking and wise solutions.”
There are ways to disrupt an intractable conflict, as history bears out. Over decades of work, in laboratories and on the margins of battlefields, scholars like Coleman, Rabinovitch and others have identified dozens of ways to break out of the trap, some of which are directly relevant to journalists.
In every case, the goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact. Americans will continue to disagree, always; but with well-timed nudges, we can help people regain their peripheral vision at the same time. Otherwise, we can be certain of at least one thing: we will all miss things that matter.
The Conversation Whisperer
In a hard-to-find windowless room at Columbia University, there is something called a Difficult Conversations Laboratory. Coleman and colleagues use the lab to study real-life conflict in a controlled setting, inspired in part by the Love Lab in Seattle (where psychologists Julie and John Gottman have famously studied thousands of married couples for many years).
Over the past decade, the Difficult Conversations Lab and its sister labs around the world have hosted and recorded close to 500 contentious encounters. They intentionally generate the kind of discomfort that most people spend all of Thanksgiving trying to avoid. To do this, the researchers first survey participants to learn their views on a few polarizing issues, such as abortion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then they match each person with someone who strongly disagrees.
When the two participants meet, they are asked to spend 20 minutes crafting a statement on the contentious subject — one that they could in theory both agree to make public with their names attached.
Some of these conversions go so terribly that they need to be shut down before the time is officially up. But many conversations do not. Over time, Coleman and his colleagues noticed that in the non-terrible conversations, people still experienced negative emotions–just not consistently. They cycled through the usual roundabout of anger and blame, but they also exited from time to time. They experienced positive emotions and then negative and then positive again, demonstrating a flexibility that was absent from the stuck conversations.
After the conversation ends and the participants are separated, they each listen to audio of their conversations and report how they felt at each point. Over time, the researchers noticed a key difference between the terrible and non-terrible conversations: The better conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war. They were more complex.
But could that complexity be artificially induced? Was there a way to cultivate better conversations? To find out, the researchers started giving the participants something to read before they met — a short article on another polarizing issue. One version of the article laid out both sides of a given controversy, similar to a traditional news story — arguing the case in favor of gun rights, for example, followed by the case for gun control.
The alternate version contained all the same information — written in a different way. That article emphasized the complexity of the gun debate, rather than describing it as a binary issue. So the author explained 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.
After reading the article, the two participants met to discuss Middle East peace — or another unrelated controversy. It turns out that the pre-conversation reading mattered: in the difficult conversations that followed, people who had read the more simplistic article tended to get stuck in negativity. But those who had read the more complex articles did not. They asked more questions, proposed higher quality ideas and left the lab more satisfied with their conversations. “They don’t solve the debate,” Coleman says, “but they do have a more nuanced understanding and more willingness to continue the conversation.” Complexity is contagious, it turns out, which is wonderful news for humanity.
On my own visit to the Difficult Conversations Lab in January, I was matched with a female graduate student who is persuaded by the notion of “trigger words” and supports the idea of “safe spaces.” I am not at all persuaded, so we were a perfect match.
Before we met, we were each asked to read a nuanced article on gun rights. As predicted, the conversation that followed was polite and careful. The grad student was guarded but thoughtful. No one stormed out or threw the stapler. We did come up with a statement we could both agree upon. I won’t call it revolutionary, but we found just enough common ground to hold us both on tippy toes. My opinion on trigger words has not changed; but I can no longer dismiss its supporters as clueless, coddled automatons. (Well, I can, but it requires a slight effort, which is new.)
The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: 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.
There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea 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.
The idea is to revive complexity in a time of false simplicity. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her mesmerizing TED Talk “A Single Story.” “[I]t’s impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”
Usually, reporters do the opposite. We cut the quotes that don’t fit our narrative. Or our editor cuts them for us. We look for coherence, which is tidy — and natural. The problem is that, in a time of high conflict, coherence is bad journalism, bordering on malpractice.
In the midst of conflict, our audiences are profoundly uncomfortable, and they want to feel better. “The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension,” Coleman writes, “by seeking coherence through simplification.” Tidy narratives succumb to this urge to simplify, gently warping reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil. We soothe ourselves with the knowledge that all Republicans are racist rednecks — or all Democrats are precious snowflakes who hate America.
Complexity counters this craving, restoring the cracks and inconsistencies that had been air-brushed out of the picture. It’s less comforting, yes. But it’s also more interesting — and true.
Right now, half of Democrats and Republicans see members of the opposing party as not just ill-informed but actually frightening, according to the Pew Research Center. Republicans think Democrats are much more liberal than they actually are — and vice versa. If part of our job is to accurately portray different points of view in ways people can understand, we are failing. (And by “we,” I mean all journalists — but especially TV news reporters. Despite the post-election angst over Facebook, nearly six in ten American adults say their most important source of election information was not digital news feeds, but old-fashioned TV news.)
In reality, explicitly racist beliefs crisscross party boundaries. In a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly a third of Hillary Clinton supporters described black people as more “violent” and “criminal” than white people, and a quarter said black people are lazier. No party (or person) is without bias.
And it’s not just Democrats who worry about offending people; in fact, 28% of Republicans with no more than a high school education say people need to be more careful with their language to avoid offense (double the share of Republican college graduates who say so). “There’s no limit to how complicated things can get,” as E.B. White wrote, “on account of one thing always leading to another.”
There is a business case for complexity, too. Right now, FOX News and MSNBC assume their viewers want outrage, which is to say, simplicity. And many do. But what about all the people who aren’t watching? Many Americans have tuned out of the news, demoralized by the sniping, depressed by the hopelessness. What would happen if they one day stumbled upon a different kind of story — one that intrigued them instead of terrifying them?
Meanwhile, as online news sites continue to struggle to make ends meet with clickbait headlines and ad revenue, more outlets are turning to subscribers to help fund their reporting. That means they have to shift from a one-night stand business model to a long-term relationship with readers — which has to be based on something deeper than cats and Trump tweets. Indignation will always be the easiest way to lure readers, but by itself, it’s not enough to make people pay for the privilege of coming back day after day.
1. Amplify Contradictions
To imagine what complexity might look like on a TV news magazine, I asked two veteran conflict mediators to watch Winfrey’s 60 Minutes conversation with Michigan voters. Sara Cobb directs the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and John Winslade, at California State University, San Bernardino, has co-authored eight books on conflict resolution.
From the first seconds of video, the mediators questioned Winfrey’s tactics. Her opening question — how President Trump is doing in his job so far — got low marks. “It’s a relatively closed question,” Cobb said. A better opener might be, “What is dividing us?” That way, “the conversation becomes about the division, and Trump doesn’t become the black hole where all this complexity is going to get dumped.”
Then came the first answer Winfrey got — from Tom:
“Every day I love him more and more. Every single day. I still don’t like his attacks, his Twitter attacks, if you will, on other politicians. I don’t think that’s appropriate. But, at the same time, his actions speak louder than words. And I love what he’s doing to this country. Love it.”
Hearing this, Winfrey turned, without comment, to the woman next to Tom to solicit her (polar opposite) opinion.
Both mediators jumped all over Winfrey for failing to respond to Tom. It was a perfect opportunity, said Cobb. “I would have said, ‘Gosh Tom, I didn’t know from out of the gate that we were going to have this kind of complexity in the room, and I compliment you because it’s so easy to say Yes or No, but you’ve actually said two things at the same time.”
In the first minute, Winfrey could have set a tone for complexity. Which would have been more accurate and more interesting. Most of us have more than one story, and so did Tom. Winfrey could have drawn out this complexity, Winslade said, by asking something like: “‘So on the one hand, you love him more and more, and on the other hand, you don’t like some things he’s doing. Tell me what you don’t like about his attacks.’”
There are many things that journalists cannot do. But we can destabilize the narrative. We can remind people that life is not as coherent as we’d like. Otherwise, the spiral to simplicity is all but certain: “As the conflict progresses, the narratives get skinnier,” Cobb says. She sees this in every kind of dispute, across dinner tables and halls of parliament. “The first fight a couple has, there’s a lot of confusion. But as time goes by, the story gets consolidated, and they can tell you in three minutes what a jerk their partner is. And the same is true in international conflicts.” But if we destabilize the narratives, as Coleman found in his lab, people tend to exhale; they keep arguing but they holster their weapons.
[To see the full transcript of the 60 Minutes segment with annotation from the expert mediators, click here.]
2. Widen the Lens
In early 2015, a classic dispute arose in the city of Gloucester, a coastal community on Massachusetts’ North Shore. City Council officials announced that a 25-foot high steel sculpture would be installed at a public park near the town’s waterfront. The sculpture would be funded through public and private funds.
The locals began fighting about the sculpture almost immediately. “It just got the hackles of everybody up,” says Kathy Eckles, a Gloucester resident who is also a therapist and trained facilitator. Some felt the town’s elites were dictating the use of public space. On Facebook, the insults turned vicious. The Gloucester Daily Times ran a story quoting the City Council president, who called the proposed sculpture “beautiful,” followed by a skeptical resident who questioned the appropriateness of the piece. “It’s just not right, I don’t think, for this port. I’d rather see our icons recognized first.”
It was shaping up to be an old-fashioned NIMBY battle of the most predictable kind: art work, love it or hate it. Then something unexpected happened. City officials turned for advice to a group called Gloucester Conversations, which Eckles and her colleague John Sarrouf had recently formed with other residents in hopes of creating more constructive interactions in the city. “Our community, which is very beloved, was also very divisive,” Eckles says. A previous dispute about what to do with a decaying Birds Eye factory had dragged out for several years, dividing the town into factions. The same thing happened with a debate over a charter school. Then there was the backyard chicken controversy of 2014. “It was just on and on,” Sarrouf says, “about everything.”
This time, instead of getting sucked into the sculpture quagmire, the group (with help from the nonprofit Essential Partners, where Eckles and Sarrouf work) widened the lens on the dispute. They intentionally took the opportunity to start a bigger conversation — about what Gloucester wanted from its public art and how these decisions should be made.
First, they invited all the local arts and culture leaders in the community together and asked them blue-sky questions: What is public art? What is included? How should we decide? Then the group held a public meeting at the City Hall to ask the same wide-open questions. Nearly 100 people showed up. After that, organizers went out into the neighborhoods and held still more conversations. Residents covered a huge map of Gloucester with sticky notes, marking old buildings that should be renovated; statues that had been forgotten; and locations where new works might go.
Interestingly, it wasn’t hard to broaden people’s imagination. “All the way through, people were so responsive,” Eckles says. It turned out that they wanted to be part of a conversation that was bigger than themselves. “Generally,” says Sarrouf, “it’s a relief to people to be pulled out of deadlock.”
So the feud became an inquiry — in a way that made the story more interesting, not less. The sculpture never did get installed. But later that year, the Gloucester Daily Times ran a different kind of article — focused on the city’s quest for a new arts policy.
Decades of research have shown that when journalists widen the lens like the Gloucester organizers did, the public reacts differently. Starting in the 1990s, Stanford political science professor Shanto Iyengar exposed people to two kinds of TV news stories: wider-lens stories (which he called “thematic” and which focused on broader trends or systemic issues — like, say, the causes of poverty) and narrow-lens stories (which he labeled “episodic” and which focused on one individual or event — say, for example, one welfare mother or homeless man).
Again and again, people who watched the narrow-lens stories on the welfare mother were more likely to blame individuals for poverty afterwards — even if the story of the welfare mother was compassionately rendered. By contrast, people who saw the wider-lens stories were more likely to blame government and society for the problems of poverty. The wider the lens, the wider the blame, in other words.
In reality, most stories include both wide and narrow-lens moments; a feature on a welfare mother will still invariably include a few lines about the status of job-training programs or government spending. But as Iyengar showed in his book Is Anyone Responsible?, TV news segments are dominated by a narrow focus. As a result, TV news unintentionally lets politicians off the hook, Iyengar wrote, because of the framing of most stories. The narrow-lens nudges the public to hold individuals accountable for the ills of society — rather than corporate leaders or government officials. We don’t connect the dots.
Great storytelling always zooms in on individual people or incidents; I don’t know many other ways to bring a complicated problem to life in ways that people will remember. But if journalists don’t then zoom out again — connecting the welfare mother or, say, the controversial sculpture to a larger problem — then the news media just feeds into a human bias. If we’re all focused on whatever small threat is right in front of us, it’s easy to miss the big catastrophe unfolding around us.
3. Ask Questions that Get to People’s Motivations
Sandra McCulloch was a veteran reporter for the Victoria Times Colonist in Victoria, Canada, when her sister stopped talking to her — and wouldn’t say why. It tore McCulloch up to have no contact and no answers. So one day, McCulloch signed up for a short, introductory course in conflict mediation, just to see what she could learn.
“It was the most powerful thing I think I’d ever done,” she says. A year later, on her 55th birthday, McCulloch quit her 25-year newspaper career to start a new life. She’d always loved people, and while journalism gave her access to their darkest stories, mediation seemed like a way to help them to the light. “It gives you so many more tools — to find out who people are and why they do the things they do.”
The most useful tool was the questions she asked, as it turned out. She’d always asked questions, but now she asked different ones in different ways. She tried to use questions as a spade — to get beyond the usual script.
“If I’d known then what I know now, I think I would have asked a lot more questions about conflict,” she says. This surprised me. I’d always thought journalists focused too much on conflict; wasn’t that the problem? But McCulloch says we just buzz around conflict, never getting to the heart of the matter. Our questions stay on the surface, stoking conflict like a rake but never getting to the richer soil below.
Mediators spend a lot of their energy on this idea of digging underneath the conflict. They have dozens of tricks to get people to stop talking about their usual gripes, which they call “positions” — and start talking about the story underneath that story, also known as “interests” or “values.”
Opposing Obamacare is a position; a belief in self-sufficiency is, for many people, the value underlying their position. Whether you agree or not, these deeper motivations matter far more to the debate than the facts of the conflict (and also happen to be more interesting).
People are driven by their gut and heart, not their reasoning, as New York University social psychologist Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, citing research going back decades. In fact, superficial self-interest has never been a good predictor of political behavior. (Note to journalists: it might be time to stop doing stories on how Trump voters in the Rust Belt voted against their economic interests; that’s about as insightful as a story revealing that beach-goers don’t wear sunscreen.)
Instead, Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition. Liberals (and liberal members of the media) tend to be very conscious of three of these foundations: care, fairness and liberty. Conservatives are especially attuned to loyalty, authority and sanctity, but they care about all six. And conservative politicians reliably play all six notes, Haidt argues.
Conservatives (and conservative media, I’d add) have a systemic advantage as a result. They can motivate more people more often because they hit more notes. (Notice how Democratic leaders still do not talk very often about Trump’s disloyalty to America, his cabinet members and his wives, in those terms, despite being bombarded with evidence of such disloyalty. They complain more often about injustice, indecency and unkindness, because those are the notes they most like to play.)
If journalists want to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots — just like mediators. “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.’”
These kinds of questions reveal deeper motivations, beyond the immediate conflict. Sometimes, the entire conflict disappears when this happens — because people suddenly realize they agree on what matters most. More often, the questions reveal that the dispute is about something other than what everyone thought. “Experienced mediators love telling stories like this,” says Mary Conger, a mediator who co-founded the American Dialogue Project, which matches Americans up for conversations across political divides. “We all thought we were in the room for a totally different reason. It unlocks this world of possibilities.”
Last year, I signed up for Conger’s project as a journalist and a participant. I was matched with Bill, a retired principal from Wisconsin who is more conservative than I am. We spoke on the phone for a 40-minute, facilitated phone call, following the protocol that Conger created. The first question was, “How did you come to have your political views?”
I hesitated to answer, which made me realize I had never once thought of how I came to believe what I believe. At some level, I think I’d assumed I came to my political opinions scientifically — by looking at all the information and choosing the “truth.” Which is utter nonsense. In fact, I’d been raised in New Jersey by a feminist mother who voted Democrat and raged against injustice, alongside a more conservative father who grew up on a cattle ranch and who consistently voted for Republicans throughout my childhood. As I got older, other experiences shaped my views, but I had never really articulated that evolution to myself or anyone else.
If the conversation had started by asking me what I thought of Trump (like the 60 Minutes episode), I would have had no problem giving an extemporaneous monologue on the subject, replete with superlatives and metaphors. Instead, I had to tell Bill my own story, which was necessarily more complex, and Bill had to tell me his story. Eventually, we learned that we both cared about access to health care for everyone; but Bill also cared a lot about deficit spending, something I could remember my dad worrying about over the dinner table in the 1980s (but I almost never read about in the pages of the New York Times). After the call, neither of us had changed our positions, but the conversation helped widen my lens.
Of course, it’s easier to get regular people to dig into their back stories; upending the script of a well-rehearsed executive or politician can be impossible, no matter what questions they are asked. As a reporter, McCulloch had never liked interviewing politicians. “I always felt like I was being played,” she says. But she now thinks there are ways to get underneath the surface, even with politicians. “Now I think I would have pressed more — ‘I want to know why you feel this way.’”
Here are some specific questions that McCulloch and other mediators I interviewed suggested that reporters (or anyone) could 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?
Another journalist-turned-mediator, Samantha Levine-Finley, spent a decade covering homeland security and politics for US News & World Report, the Houston Chronicle and other outlets before deciding to change careers. She worked on Capitol Hill, which is basically Ground Zero for tribal rage. “I felt like I was mostly giving airtime to bad behavior — which mostly fosters more bad behavior,” Levine-Finley told me.
Since then, she has spent much of the past decade working in the Ombudsman offices of the National Institutes of Health and the American Red Cross, leading trainings, coaching employees and mediating conflicts. If she ever returned to journalism, she says, she’d care about different things. “I’d care less about how clever I was,” she says, “and more about the bits and pieces that don’t fit, the people whose perspectives were inconvenient.”
In McCulloch’s case, she never did get an explanation from her sister. Her mom passed away, and the two sisters rarely have cause to interact anymore. Still, McCulloch has found some peace by understanding the universality of her story. “You realize everybody has conflicts like this in their lives,” she says. “I know how awful it is. But you can get past it.”
4. Listen more, and better
Americans’ trust in mass media (newspapers, TV and radio) “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” is at its lowest level in Gallup polling history, dating back to 1972. The problem is serious among Democrats, and dire among Republicans — only 14% of whom say they trust the media.
We can debate the reasons for this, but we’ll eventually just be talking to ourselves. Our stories don’t matter if we are not believed. “Trust precedes facts,” as Eve Pearlman, co-founder of Spaceship Media, likes to say.
Everyone I spoke to said that one powerful way to build trust is by listening better — in ways people can see. Reporters rarely get trained in how to do this; we get a lot of feedback about our stories from editors and readers but very little about our methods.
I’ve come to realize that this is nuts. In many other professions that involve delicate conversations, people get trained in the art of asking questions and listening. They approach interviewing like an art, one they never stop learning. Why don’t journalists? No one has listened to my interviews for a print article and given me feedback — ever. I learn by trial and error, which is like studying a language by yourself. You can get better, but it will take you forever.
Lynn Morrow, by contrast, has been coaching college students for nine years for InsideTrack, a company that helps universities ensure first-generation and other students finish their degrees. She has over 150 students in Wisconsin on her caseload. The central challenge of Morrow’s job is to build trust — usually over the phone or in text or email messages — with at-risk students who are extremely reluctant to share their doubts and fears.
Building trust is so important — and so difficult — that Morrow and her colleagues go through hours of training, including a role-play coaching exercise with the company’s CEO. She’s a veteran at the company, but to this day, every call she makes gets recorded, analyzed and scored on a scale from one to four, depending on how well she listened and responded to her students.
One of Morrow’s most common mistakes, she says, has been to miss very subtle cues. For example, she used to ask students how things were going and accept the first answer she got — which was usually, “Great!” Later, when she got the students’ grade reports, she’d realize things were not great. Like all humans, the students had been reluctant to lead with their vulnerability. “We talk about what we’re comfortable and confident with first — and what you think the person wants to hear,” Morrow says. “When you really push them to go further is honestly when you get the most important information.”
She learned to listen not just to what students say — but to their “gap words,” or the things that they don’t say. If they hesitate, for example, before answering a question about their last math test, or if they dodge a question altogether. Then she knows to dig deeper. She asks important questions multiple times — sometimes weeks apart — and almost always gets different answers. Usually each answer is true — and each represents a different piece of the story. Most of all, she tries to keep her mind open for as long as possible in every conversation. “It’s so easy to go in with the thought that you know exactly what is going on — which shuts down other possibilities.”
There are other tricks for doing this, even under time pressure. In conversations across profound divides, Resetting the Table trains people to listen for specific clues or “signposts,” which are usually symptoms of deeper, hidden meaning. 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.
At one point in the 60 Minutes conversation in Michigan, a man named Matt explained his Trump vote this way: “We wanted somebody to go in and flip tables. We’re tired of the status quo…”
In response, Winfrey asked: “In your mind, what table got flipped?”
That was a good question, our mediator experts said, because it showed curiosity about Matt’s metaphor. People often use metaphors when they feel emotion; investigating those metaphors can help reveal a deeper, more compelling truth.
Even better, Winslade said, would have been to ask what tables have not gotten flipped — to adopt Matt’s metaphor and then challenge it. To ask, in essence, “Are there any parts of the Trump administration that perpetuate the status quo?”
Another related and very common strategy for building trust is to double check — to give the person a distillation of what you thought they meant and see what they say. 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.
Our brains make rapid assumptions that we aren’t even aware we’re making. We are wrong more often than we think. To understand what someone really means requires a lot of double-checking. It’s a simple tactic that sounds something like this: “So you were disappointed by the Mayor’s actions because you care deeply about what happens to the kids in this school system. Is that right?”
It seems obvious and maybe a bit contrived, but it works like magic. In training with Friedman and a dozen other mediators in February, I practiced looping and being looped, over and over again. I was amazed at how often I thought I’d understood the person — but had missed some important nuance. (“No, I wasn’t disappointed by the Mayor’s actions; I was heartbroken.” There is a difference.) It was equally surprising how reassuring it felt when other people looped me correctly. It felt like a tiny victory: even if the other person didn’t agree, she’d truly heard and digested my point.
Since then, I’ve been trying to loop every time I get into any kind of vaguely emotional conversation, even outside of work. When my son rages that he has to go to bed, I now say something extremely unremarkable like, “You’re really frustrated that you can’t stay up.” Before, I would have ignored him or argued with him, explaining how reasonable his bedtime is and how lucky he is to have a bed, etc. Now, after I show him that I’ve heard him, he just…goes to bed. It’s news you can use, every damn day.
Granted, I don’t always have the self-control to loop. But when I do pull it off, it always helps — lowering the heat of the conversation and the odds it will go wrong. This sounds squishy but it is a key to the kingdom. Having someone articulate your most important message proves that you’ve been understood, which is all most of us want.
“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.
Once you start listening for looping, though, it’s surprising how rarely you hear it. For the past two years, CNN political commentator (and self-proclaimed liberal activist) Van Jones has been traveling the country, talking to Trump supporters in an effort to “build bridges” and “try to understand why Americans are so divided.” Shortly before the 2016 election, he visited a family of Trump supporters in Gettysburg, PA, for the first in a series of shows called The Messy Truth.
I asked Friedman, who has mediated over 2,000 cases in his career, to watch the 10-minute CNN segment and share his thoughts. He started out hopeful. “I thought it was a wonderful idea — to go to people’s homes is great,” Friedman says. “Hopefully they feel a little stronger in their homes, and it helps make for a more fair, balanced dialogue.”
But just like the mediators who watched the 60 Minutes segment, Friedman started cringing almost immediately. Jones looped almost nothing that the family said, Friedman noticed. At one point, a woman shared a very personal story about how the election has affected her life: “One of my friends blasted me on social media: ‘How can a mother who professes to so love her children support Trump?’ And she called me two-faced, and she just cut into me big time.”
The woman’s eyes filled with tears, and her voice broke as she swung between sadness and anger. “I lost a friend I really liked and cared about. How did my mothering come into play with who I am supporting for president? Like, ‘How dare you, put me out there to be this evil individual?’ It broke my heart. It just broke my heart.”
In response to this display of genuine suffering, Jones said nothing to recognize that he had heard her. He did not share any personal stories of his own experiences with accusations and heartbreak (although he presumably has plenty). Instead, he told her that liberals needed her help, and then he delivered a short lecture on the different ways conservatives and liberals view liberty and justice. He took a very personal, painful revelation and made it impersonal and sterile.
Jones could have responded like this, Friedman suggested: “I think that we actually have something in common here. We both feel as if we are being put in a box that we don’t belong in.” He could have acknowledged the woman’s heartbreak — and connected it to his own: “We each feel disrespected and misunderstood.”
To be fair, Jones did what most of us do when we are trapped in a conflict. He was so busy convincing the family they were wrong that he failed to prove he was listening. So the conversation just cycled round and round, going nowhere interesting. “He uses everything they say as a chance to retort and accuse,” Friedman said. “I see nothing but missed opportunities left and right.”
“As long as they understand that he’s not going to try to understand them, they’re on the defensive. And he’s on the attack,” Friedman says. “He’s trying to change the game, but this is the same game. It’s just done with the appearance of curiosity.”
Curiosity should be natural for journalists — and it is, with some stories. But over time, as we start to hear the same arguments and story lines over and over, our curiosity fades. It’s a human tendency, but one that our sources notice.
Joe Figini, a veteran attorney in Washington, DC, has been interviewed by national reporters for stories about death-penalty cases, corporate failures and other complex issues. The experience is consistently unsatisfying. “[Reporters] ask a very narrow set of questions,” Figini says. “It was never like, ‘We want to understand what really happened.’ They always came with a thesis.”
One way that journalists can do better is to let go — by ceding some control to our audiences (who are usually less jaded than we are). Companies like Hearken help newsrooms partner with the public throughout the reporting process — soliciting ideas, asking people to vote for their favorite ones and then reporting them out. Hearken is currently working with about a hundred newsrooms in 15 countries. “The public has infinite curiosity,” Jennifer Brandel, Hearken’s founder and a radio journalist, tells reporters and editors. “And also, by the way, you are a member of the public.”
Over the course of one year, for example, Bitch Media published 20 stories prompted by reader input and found that readers spent more time with those stories than with other stories — and were more likely to sign up for a membership afterwards. This kind of work requires a shift in reporters’ mindsets, needless to say. “There are reporters who still feel that the audience is made of a bunch of idiots and assholes,” says Brandel, “but we try to show them that the reason they think that is because their connection to the public has heretofore just been them complaining to you. You haven’t given them a chance.”
Trust is mutual, in other words. It’s easier to get trust if you give it.
5. Expose People to the Other Tribe
The most powerful way to get people to stop demonizing each other, as decades of research into racial prejudice have shown, is to introduce them to one another. The technical term is “contact theory,” but it just means that 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, as Diana Mutz, a political scientist professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found.
Journalists can introduce people in at least two ways: vicariously, through good storytelling, or literally, by bringing communities together in live or virtual events. But doing this right is harder than it sounds. And it’s possible to make things worse if certain conditions are not in place.
Vicarious storytelling can unintentionally narrow the lens, as previously discussed, by focusing on individual accountability instead of systemic ills. It is important to widen the lens and connect a particular representative of the “other” tribe to a larger history and story — or the story can end up just confirming the audience’s biases.
Literal convenings, meanwhile, are happening more often as more media outlets look to subscribers to support their work over the long term — instead of depending on drive-by clicks. But here again, the execution makes all the difference. It’s important, for example, that everyone invited to a community gathering feels like they are on equal footing. The situation needs to be nonthreatening and fair (so you wouldn’t want to host a conversation about race in the whitest neighborhood in town, for example).
There should be moments of levity and shared history or purpose, too. And ideally food. People still bond when they break bread, just as they always have. These details matter a lot — just as much as the substance of the conversation. In the Difficult Conversation’s Lab, Coleman and his colleagues found that conversations go better when people have about 3 positive interactions for every 1 negative encounter. And the tone is usually set in the first few minutes.
The best conversations across differences usually start with personal questions like, “Which of your life experiences have shaped your political views?” When we tell our own story, we tend to speak with more nuance, because real life is not a bumper sticker.
When Spaceship Media works with a newsroom to engage a divided community, they usually start by asking four questions (often through Facebook):
- 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?
Notice none of those questions are about President Trump, unlike the 60 Minutes segment. Each question requires some amount of reflection, which leads to a more curious, less charged mindset.
Then the journalists get to work — trying to get the answers to the questions people asked about their counterparts. They do this with unusual levels of transparency, frequently sharing what they are finding and from where — and asking readers for feedback and suggestions.
After the 2016 election, Spaceship Media filled a closed Facebook group with 50 women, half of them Trump voters from Alabama and the other half Hillary Clinton voters from California. For one month, the women had difficult conversations about abortion, health care, race and politics. At one point, when it became clear that the Alabama women had a very different view of Obamacare than the California women, the journalists got involved, investigating how Obamacare functioned in each place. They shared their findings with the group, including the fact that healthcare premiums had been increasing faster in Alabama than in California. The women’s conflicting perceptions were rooted in some real geographic differences.
Over time, the participants on both sides started asking for more reporting. They started to trust the reporters, who had trusted them.
6. Counter Confirmation Bias (Carefully)
One of the most well-studied biases in the human portfolio is confirmation bias — our nasty habit of believing news that confirms our pre-existing narratives and dismissing everything else.
Worse yet, people exposed to information that challenges their views can actually end up more convinced that they are right. (And more educated people are not necessarily less biased in this way. For example, scientific literacy and numeracy are not strong predictors of believing climate change poses a serious risk to the public, as Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan has found.) In other words, confirmation bias is the Kryptonite of traditional journalism; it renders all of our most brilliant and meticulous work utterly impotent.
That’s because people don’t decide to believe something based on its statistical validity. That’s just not how our brains have evolved to work. We judge information based on its source and its harmony with our other beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking Fast and Slow: “How do you know if a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel 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. If you’re doing a story about the scientific evidence for the safety of vaccines, and you know your most liberal readers are highly suspicious of this argument, it would be best to use sources that surprise them — ideally ones from their tribe.
Another tactic is to use graphics instead of text. In a series of experiments, Nyhan and colleagues found that presenting information visually increased the accuracy of people’s beliefs about charged issues — including the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq after the U.S. troop surge and the change in global temperatures over the past 30 years.
Cognitive ease also comes from a feeling of hope. Uncomfortable information that could generate fear (such as a report on the devastation of this year’s flu epidemic) is more palatable to people if it comes with a side of specific actions that people can take in response (such as a list of pharmacies offering free flu shots along with their hours of operation).
In a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies on fear messaging, Kim Witte and Mike Allen found that fear without a sense of agency backfires — leading people to respond with denial, avoidance and disgust. The vast majority of news stories function precisely this way, which should give us pause. Generating denial, avoidance and disgust cannot be a good business model. But when people are reminded that a problem has possible solutions (some of which they agree with and can act on in the near future) they are more open to considering the warning.
Finally, some simple advice: it’s important not to repeat a false belief in an effort to correct it, Nyhan has found. If people are told Barack Obama is not Muslim, many will remember that he is Muslim. The negative simply vanishes from their minds, because it doesn’t fit with their pre-existing biases. The best way to counter this disturbing tendency is to just state that Obama is Christian — and avoid ringing any false notes altogether.
Breaking the Narrative
In early 2018, 60 Minutes held a reunion for the Democrats and Republicans they’d gathered together in Michigan. Oprah Winfrey was there, too (having recently vowed not to run for president after all). Some of the group members had stayed in touch over the past six months, as Winfrey mentioned with pride in the opening: “Members from opposite sides of the divide actually became friends, organizing outings and talking every day in a private Facebook chat group.”
But the conversation that followed remained maddeningly banal. One Trump supporter said she felt “safer” under the administration: “I feel like I can say Merry Christmas to anyone I want, wherever I want,” she said. Trump critics seized on the Christmas angle: “Spare me the fake outrage,” said one. “Obama always said Merry Christmas,” added another. We never got to hear more about why the woman used the word safer.
Later, there was disagreement about whether Trump had really complained about immigrants coming to America from “shithole countries,” as was widely reported in the media.
Winfrey: “Who here believes that he made the comment…?”
Winfrey: “You think he made the comment?”
Paul: “Yeah, I think he made the comment.”
It was like watching a family scarred by dysfunction debate the way the yams were cooked; everyone was arguing but no one brought up anything that really mattered.
But the fact that the Michigan group had stayed in touch was important, even so. Despite the superficial bickering, they still wanted to see each other as human. And that reveals another human bias, one that is way undervalued. “People don’t want to be at each other’s throats,” says Sarrouf, who convenes conversations about gun rights and other divisive issues, in addition to his work in Gloucester. “People don’t want to be seen as callous. They want to be understood deeply.”
Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true; but we also share a desire for understanding. Encouragingly, perhaps, we are starting to see sporadic examples of high-profile journalists trying to break through the tribalism. Aside from Winfrey and Van Jones, Jake Tapper held a CNN town hall on gun violence earlier this year — in response to the Parkland, FL, school shooting. Even Glenn Beck (yes, Glenn Beck!) has tried in recent years to get his audience to stop demonizing the other side and hear more complexity.
In all these encounters, the media personalities seem to have good intentions. They want to do this differently; they just lack the skills. It’s like watching your grandfather use Twitter; he could learn but it probably won’t happen naturally.
Talking to people in high conflict is a piece of our clinical training that wasn’t properly handled, and now we are dangerous. The result is not just boring TV; we are adding to the toxicity when we don’t intend to. The reaction to Tapper’s town hall — on TV and on social media — was a shrieking match between FOX News supporters, who accused CNN of feeding questions to the students, and CNN supporters, who accused the critics of lying and applauded their own righteousness.
Interestingly, it was left to the politician — Senator Marco Rubio, who participated in the town hall despite being wildly outnumbered politically — to explain what was at stake:
“We are a nation of people that no longer speak to each other. We are a nation of people who have stopped being friends with people because [of whom] they voted for in the last election,” he said. “We’re a nation of people that have isolated ourselves politically and to a point where discussions like this have become very difficult.”
And indeed, it was a very difficult night for Rubio. But it could have been so much more than difficult. It could have been revealing.
Journalists 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, journalists and non-journalists, 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.
Amanda Ripley is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective.