The power of being heard

To solve conflicts, being listened to has proved to be the most important factor--even more than building trust.
Written by Ina Muri, Weekend Editor

Neuroscientists at MIT have recently discovered that being listened to is the most important factor in solving conflicts.

Rebecca Saxe, the senior author of the study and associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and her volunteer Emile Bruneau, a postdoc also from MIT, discovered that the benefits of exchanging experiences are much greater when people of the disempowered group share their stories with the dominant group, as opposed to the other way around. Many studies have documented the benefits of  "perspective talking" and making an effort to understand another person's point for view, but this is the first study to look at the other side of the exchange.

The study, that is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, focused on the conflicts between Palestinians vs. Israelis and Mexican immigrants vs. whites in Arizona. Saxe and Bruneau's findings support the idea that the greatest barrier for the disempowered groups to reconcile is their belief and concerns of being ignored. The groups' sense of being neglected, disregarded or taken advantage of is the greatest obstacle to progress.

To test this hypothesis the groups were told they were a part of an online translation system. The Arizona study took place six months after the passage of the controversial anti-immigration bill, and the Middle East study was conducted six months after the 2009 Israeli military action in Gaza. The timing was important as it was a point in time when the hope for a peace agreement was particularly low.

Each participant was told to write about the difficulties they experience in the society they live in, for then to read and summarize an essay written by a member of the opposing group. All interactions took place through video and text-based chat, and each person was paired with someone who was a research assistant--unbeknown to the participant.

It became apparent that attitudes toward the opposing group improved most among members of the disempowered group when they told their own stories, and for people of the dominant group when they read the opposers' stories. But when people of the less powerful group only wrote their stories without having anyone from the opposing group read them, their attitudes towards the other group did not change. This reinforces the importance of being listened to.

For the dominant group, the researchers believe that hearing the opposing group's stories was also beneficial because members of that group often fear that they are being blamed for the conflict. Therefore, listening to the views of the disempowered group gives them a chance to show that they're actually good people, Saxe said.

Peter Colemna, the director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, said the study offers valuable insight to the development of both sides of a dialog. "This is good experimental research on an issue that's important to practitioners of dialogue programs," he said.

The next step in Saxe and Bruneau's research is to address which types of attitude changes are most likely to last during a conflict. An example they give is to create a program that decrease the perception that the other side is biased and irrational. They think that this might prove more successful as opposed to the usual programs that only has a focus on improving trust.

Image courtesy: MIT News Office

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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