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Use This Harvard Professor’s HEAR Approach to Be the Person Everyone Wants to Talk To

Just about everyone agrees that Americans could do a lot better at speaking to one another across political divides with understanding and compassion. But getting better at turning the temperature down on potentially fraught conversations has a lot more benefits than just improving our politics.

As any veteran parent can tell you, this is a handy skill for anyone who needs to interact with teenagers. It’s also useful for dealing with unruly or unreasonable customers, out-of-touch bosses, and friends or employees who routinely ignore good advice. In short, the ability to have productive conversations even with cranky, defensive people or those who disagree with you profoundly is an incredibly valuable skill for any entrepreneur to master.

The basics of being good at tough conversations in just four letters

It can also feel incredibly hard to master. Psychologists and negotiation experts have offered a bevy of tips, most of which focus on identifying shared values, leaning into curiosity, and keeping in mind that most of the time facts don’t win argumentsHuman connection does. All of which sounds high minded but hard to maintain when someone is bullying your staff or spewing opinions you find loathsome.

Perhaps a mnemonic device that boils this advice down into simple, actionable advice might help. Handily, a recent post on The Conversation by Harvard conflict management expert Julia Minson provides just that. Minson introduces a conversational style known as “conversational receptiveness” that she describes along with a team of psychologists and linguists. This approach is captured by the easy-to-remember acronym HEAR:
  • Hedge your claims. “Even when you feel very certain about your beliefs,” Minson instructs. “It signals a recognition that there are some cases or some people who might support your opponent’s perspective.”

  • Emphasize agreement. “Find some common ground even when you disagree on a particular topic. This does not mean compromising or changing your mind, but rather recognizing that most people in the world can find some broad ideas or values to agree on,” she continues.

  • Acknowledge the opposing perspective. “Rather than jumping in to your own argument, devote a few seconds to restating the other person’s position to demonstrate that you did indeed hear and understand it.”

  • Reframe to the positive. “Avoid negative and contradictory words, such as ‘no,’ ‘won’t,’ or ‘do not.’ At the same time, increase your use of positive words to change the tone of the conversation.”

Be the person everyone wants to talk to

HEAR encapsulates best practices for better discussions, but no acronym — no matter how handy — can make keeping your cool during difficult conversations dead easy. Still, research shows that learning and deploying the HEAR approach is worth the effort.

If you want to be the sort of person everyone wants to talk to, this is the conversational style you want to go with. When the researchers paired those who disagreed about Covid vaccines — which is, as we all know, a definite conversational powder keg — they found just a few minutes of instruction in HEAR made a big difference in how these chats panned out.

“We found that participants who received a couple of minutes of instruction in conversational receptiveness were seen as more trustworthy and more reasonable by their counterparts. Their counterparts were also more willing to talk to them about other topics,” Minson reports.

“Just knowing that they’d be engaging with someone trained in this technique made both parties report being 50 percent more willing to have a vaccine conversation. People felt more confident their discussion partner would hear them and less worried they’d be a dismissive jerk,” she adds.

Who among us wouldn’t benefit from being trusted more and seen as a dismissive jerk less? Avoiding tough conversations means leaving tough problems to fester. Getting better at talking about hard things not only improves human connection, but moves us closer to solutions as well. If the HEAR approach can help, I for one think it is well worth a try.



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