Listening to understand: The role of high-quality listening on speakers' attitude depolarization during disagreements

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2023 Nov 2. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000366. Online ahead of print.


Disagreements can polarize attitudes when they evoke defensiveness from the conversation partners. When a speaker talks, listeners often think about ways to counterargue. This process often fails to depolarize attitudes and might even backfire (i.e., the Boomerang effect). However, what happens in disagreements if one conversation partner genuinely listens to the other's perspective? We hypothesized that when conversation partners convey high-quality listening-characterized by attention, understanding, and positive intentions-speakers will feel more socially comfortable and connected to them (i.e., positivity resonance) and reflect on their attitudes in a less defensive manner (i.e., have self-insight). We further hypothesized that this process reduces perceived polarization (perceived attitude change, perceived attitude similarity with the listener) and actual polarization (reduced attitude extremity). Four experiments manipulated poor, moderate, and high-quality listening using a video vignette (Study 1) and live interactions (Studies 2-4). The results consistently supported the research hypotheses and a serial mediation model in which listening influences depolarization through positivity resonance and nondefensive self-reflection. Most of the effects of the listening manipulation on perceived and actual depolarization generalized across indicators of attitude strength, specifically attitude certainty and attitude morality. These findings suggest that high-quality listening can be a valuable tool for bridging attitudinal and ideological divides. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).

Grants and funding