To reap the business benefits of a diverse workforce -- where different perspectives create more innovative solutions -- leaders need to build an inclusive culture. After all, if people don't feel comfortable raising a differing opinion, homogeneity of thought is a foregone conclusion.
A recent Scientific American article from Francesa Gino, Julia Minson, and Mike Yeomans, professors and a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, respectively, points to "conversational receptiveness" as the skill that can unlock productive debate. Conversational receptiveness is the ability to signal willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and in several research studies, it was the common denominator in keeping dialogue constructive (or was absent when disagreements went in circles).
The best news? It's learnable.
Here are three ways you can become fluent in conversational receptiveness, according to the research, and consequently foster a culture of constructive conflict instead of stonewalling silence.
1. Summarize the opposing viewpoint.
A core tenet of active listening is the ability to restate what you're hearing, and this is also helpful to communicate that you're open to conflicting points of view, according to the researchers. Even if (and probably especially when) you strongly disagree with an argument, take a pause and sum it up in your own words to show the other person you're listening. "What I'm hearing you say is ... " can be a particularly helpful phrase to set you on the right path.
2. Hedge your own viewpoint.
Leaders sometimes speak in absolutes: "This is the right choice" or "That idea is going to fail." While strong language conveys confidence and conviction, it can also unintentionally discourage disagreement. The researchers found that hedging a strong opinion with words like "might," "could," "perhaps," "maybe," and so on, is another way to signal conversational receptiveness, and prompt others to chime in.
3. Use positive framing.
Finally, framing an argument with positive instead of negative language also made an impact on the perception of how willing a person would be to listen to a divergent point of view. Consider the difference between the framing "We shouldn't waste any more money on that" and "There might be more worthy places we could spend the money." The next time you're locked in a heated discussion, take note of whether your framing tends to be on the more positive or the more negative side -- and work on shifting if you find yourself on the pessimistic side of the continuum.
Not only will working on your own conversational receptiveness pay off in more healthy debate, the authors also found that "receptive language is contagious." In other words, the more receptive you seem, the more receptive the person on the other side of the table will be to your argument. Any cultural change starts with one person, and the potential ripple effect is well worth making these conversational hacks a regular part of your communication.