We need to talk about talking… and listening….

“Breakdown in conversation is the biggest risk of our times” Ros Wynne Jones, Daily Mirror journalist and founder of the Britain Talks initiative

And so we find ourselves in the midst of another election campaign. Exposed once more argument, discord and debates. All aimed at persuading us, helping us make our voting choices…

Against this backdrop, social and digital spaces have been getting a bit of a slating. We’ve heard about the sad loss of some excellent female MPs due to abuse, mostly experienced in social channels. We’ve heard about concerns for the use/misuse of prominent social platforms to sway our opinions and alleged ‘truth policing’ or ‘fact checking’.

The concept and practice of debate, of exposure to opposing views and openness to persuasion, seems to have become muddied. Social is again caught up in this, making it easy for us to retreat into spaces where we only hear views we agree with, from ‘people like us’. It’s increasingly used to broadcast (by individuals or brands), to criticise – not helpful to meaningful debate, conversation, engaging or learning.

So many places to talk but not enough conversation

It seems we’ve lost sight of the exciting, positive developments online and social spaces were once seen to be.

We once celebrated social and ‘the web’ as hugely progressive: enabling more conversations, interactions across space and time zones, seeing no boundaries. A way to meet people, explore ‘places’ we might not get to see in real life, and learn from this rich exposure.

Early social platforms were a way to re-connect with lost friends, stay close to distant family. We were excited to find others we don’t know but share interests with, to build new, virtual, communities. Communities that helped us learn from others’ experiences or gain solidarity and support we struggle to find offline. To safely seek the help we might not find or be able to ask for in real life, with unguarded openness among the safety of strangers.

Community was a cornerstone; creativity, collaboration and progress the potential….   

Communities based on dialogue. Comments, discussion, sharing opinions, experiences and perspectives gave space to learn. To collaborate and create. To harness the power of diverse perspectives, multiple ‘heads’ and skills.

These features all still exist, of course. And there was always the ‘broadcast and boast’ element to social. But it seems we’ve forgotten about that initial excitement of the potential to see, hear from and ‘meet’ people unlike as well as like us. To explore. To learn from and value different, diverse views.

Fast forward to… ‘Filter Bubbles’!

Ooops. Seems the tools we thought would help link and bind us, seem to have, in parts, oiled the wheels of fragmentation, fracture and friction. New words have entered our language (“filter bubbles”, “echo chambers”). We increasingly hear views we agree with, like, and tell ourselves what we want to hear.

 The value of discord and disagreement…

We can’t listen, we don’t learn and we never change our minds“. Margaret Heffernan.

A few things have recently caught our eyes and ears that remind of the value there is in the looking at the points of disagreement, the oppositions. We often find in social insight that nuggets lie in the tensions. The points of difference can be more revealing than the areas of consensus.

A recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis hosted by Margaret Heffernan, author of ‘Wilful Blindness’ talked about how, in our world of ever-present argument, we’ve lost the art of disagreeing well. Disagreement is how we experience the essence of otherness, but also how we learn.

As Heffernan states, disagreement “can be constructive, creative and how many poor ideas become brilliant ones“. But disagreement is facing a challenge and social media is a big part of that challenge when not used wisely. But looking to conflicting views, the ones that don’t chime with our received wisdom (personal or corporate) holds possibility: new ideas, progress and improvement. Maybe changing our minds and doing things differently. Reach new people and ‘make friends’. And social offers a way to find those conflicting conversations.

We were intrigued by an initiative in Germany called My Country Talks, by a journalist for Zeit Online that acted like a ‘Tinder for politics’ and matched people with opposing views from different backgrounds, to talk. The initiative proved surprisingly popular – 1,000 people signed up on the first day and 12,000 took part in total. And it proved positive: three-quarters said they learned something new; 60% agreed that their views converged with their ‘opponent’s’, people said their trust in society increased and most stayed friends.

A similar initiative took place in the UK earlier this year. Led by Ros Wynne Jones, writer for the Daily Mirror, it too proved popular, with 4,000 people taking part. Respondents said they enjoyed meeting others they wouldn’t usually encounter, having their stereotypes and perceptions challenged, learning, sometimes changing their minds and again, making friends.

If we’re open to listening to the views we don’t usually hear, listening well, to the conversations and not just the broadcasts, or ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ that we want to see… we can expand our learning to know how to be part of the conversation in a relevant and meaningful way. Learn how to reach new groups, ‘make friends’ and maybe change the minds of detractors. We might also change our own minds, do things differently, do new things. If we’re brave and curious enough to be open to persuasion.

Yes, market research has always had methods to help us hear from different views (remember the once popular deliberative engagement and ‘citizen’s jury’s’) and good sampling is based on giving diversity. But it’s still easy to end up hearing from the usual suspects and views that confirm our own. From those willing and able to take part in research, answering the questions we chose to ask, often in a guarded, ‘people pleasing’ way.

Breaking out of the bubbles….

While social and digital media is fuelling the filter bubbles and some of the fractures we’re seeing around us, let’s get back to what it was meant to be about: connections, exposure to people and places we don’t usually meet and hear from. 

As social is ever more pervasive and used by (almost) all, boundary-crossing, a source of niche interest groups and a place people regularly air the honest views and experiences they can’t in reality. It’s still a source of possibility. If we move away from counting likes and confirmatory measures it is a ripe source for meaningful listening.

Hearing the views we don’t usually hear or can’t reach in research; honest conversations we might not ‘like’ or want to hear but could spark inspiration, change, creativity and progress. We can escape our ‘bubbles’, and in doing so, have a lot to learn and better conversations.

 Come have a chat to find out about how social insight can help keep you curious.

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