“The Challenge of Public Perception” in the Journal of Petroleum Technology features the Difficult Conversations Lab

From the Journal of Petroleum Technology (JPT)

Stephen Rassenfoss, JPT Emerging Technology Senior Editor

Difficult Conversations

While living in California, Judah recalled, “If you wore a shirt with a Chevron logo to the airport, there were people who would light into you.”

While the EY survey found a large number of people who would not like the oil and gas business in their back yard, they also found people who see the environmental risks of continued oil production in such stark terms that they view it as a moral issue. And on the other side, there are people who argue that global warming is an iffy theory whose potential consequences are likely exaggerated.

Climate change and hydraulic fracturing are among the issues that have become flashpoints for difficult conversations between people with diametrically opposed points of view. What makes these disputes different is the uncompromising attitudes of those involved, which Peter T. Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, described as, “Our side is clearly right and your side is clearly deranged.”

To study these types of conflicts, Coleman created the Difficult Conversations Laboratory, where observers have watched hundreds of conversations between people on opposite sides of seemingly intractable issues. The goal is to find ways to promote productive dialogue in these stressful meetings.

Participants on opposite sides of a controversial issue are told to spend 20 minutes working together to prepare a statement on what they agree about (Fig below). Successful sessions require people to be curious about the other person and how he or she arrived at their views, the ability to see the ­complexity of the problem, and the patience to keep talking though aggravating moments. These conversations may cause a person to reconsider assumptions made but never carefully examined, Coleman said.

Figure from Journal of Petroleum Technology —These charts track the emotions experienced by a person having a difficult conversation with another person. The cluttered chart (left) shows a complex range of emotional swings. The plain chart (right) shows a conversation stuck in negative sentiments. Source: Peter Coleman/Columbia University.

In a failed session, the conversation may end before the allotted time is up because the participants could not find anything to agree on. “If they go and make a conventional argument for their side, it sets them up defensively,” Coleman said. “They are protecting the issue by advocating strongly.” If the parties stick to those stances, it is likely to lead to a stalemate leaving both parties feeling frustration and anger, he said.

A good session is not likely to change someone’s position on an issue, but they are likely to see the person on the other side differently. “They understand some things about the other person. It is not a sort of solution. It is a process. They feel respect. They would like to continue the conversation because they feel it is worthwhile,”
Coleman said.

Meetings are more productive when both sides realize that issues are “highly complicated. They are not the simple thing that the media reduces them to,” Coleman said.

Research shows that participants are more likely to be productive if they first read a description of the issue showing that it is complicated, such as a research paper that looks at a problem from multiple angles. When the same facts are presented as just pro vs. con, like a news story, each person tends “to pay attention to what supports their argument and little attention to the other side.”

Coleman offers two tips for difficult conversations: remember that “none of us have (all) the answers,” and working out problems “takes more time than you think.”

Read the full article.

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