Research published in 2002 by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil of Yale University showed that people confuse familiarity with their understanding of familiar objects. In their study, the subjects rated their understanding of various objects (a zipper, for example) and then explained to the researchers how they worked. After struggling to explain, discovering how difficult it was to do so, they revised their self-ratings downward.

Later, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach of Brown University applied this understanding to people’s understanding of policies. They asked research subjects to explain their positions on issues such as gun control and climate change. Again, after finding it difficult to explain their positions on these policies, their confidence in their understanding of the issues was greatly reduced. Sloman and Fernbach did not find the same effect when they asked the subjects to give them the reasons for their position — only when they asked participants to explain them.

In our too-often-polarized world, this research offers us a potential path toward productive conversations. If I become less certain of my understanding of a controversial issue, then I may be open to moderating my position. We may be able to explore a variety of ideas rather than remaining stuck in a fixed or escalating binary conflict.

We often adopt ideas from people around us — individuals we respect or consider to be members of our “tribe” or cohort, whether political, national, generational or professional. In adopting those ideas, we don’t always think them through or consider their unintended consequences. These opinions or positions may become part of our identity rather than a considered solution to a problem.

In order to initiate a productive conversation about controversial topics — something we might call a “constructive debate” — here are some suggestions:

  • Listen actively and nonjudgmentally to the other’s point of view. Summarize his or her position as fairly and neutrally as you can without agreeing or disagreeing.
  • Ask if you have understood correctly. If not, modify your summary as needed.
  • Ask the other person to explain how his or her solution would work — not in evaluative terms but so you can understand the process and impact.
  • Use active listening as appropriate to make sure you understand.
  • Once the other person has finished explaining, ask if he or she would be open to hearing a different viewpoint, opinion or suggestion.
  • If not, thank the person and let it go, assuming that the time is not right for this conversation. You may have, at least, planted a seed for a future constructive debate.
  • If so — and it’s difficult not to be when approached in this way — explain your position without making the other person seem wrong. In other words, upsell your position rather than attempting to correct his or hers. Putting the other person on the defensive will not be helpful.
  • Ask if the person has any questions about your ideas or if he or she can think of other solutions that could be worth exploring.

Your goal is not necessarily to convince the other person to agree with you but, rather, to open up some space to explore a variety of options — to move both of you away from fixed positions and toward thoughtful problem-solving.

We think of confidence as something positive, but too much confidence in solutions or ideas that haven’t been developed through a process of truth-finding, research and/or experimentation can close your mind to potentially innovative and mutually acceptable approaches. The sometimes painful exercise of explaining why you believe your preferred solution will work may create just enough self-doubt to help you moderate your position — which can be a good thing.