the ways that conversation unlocks new possibilities (science says)

Two people are shown talking in an alleyway by the ocean.

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illumy was founded on the belief that the better we can communicate, the closer we become. 🤗

Now, exciting new research from Dartmouth College put this theory to the test.

In the study, volunteers were hooked up to MRI machines and shown clips from a movie they’d never seen. They then gathered in small groups to discuss the clips. After that, the volunteers climbed back in the MRIs to watch the same clips again, as well as new clips they hadn’t seen.

The conversation proved to be a pivot point for the volunteers. ❗️ After discussing the film, their brain activity became more synchronized — when seeing both the rewatched clips and the new ones.

The fact that the volunteers’ brains stayed synchronized suggests 2️⃣ impactful things: first, that our minds can be changed by other people; and second, that these changes can last.

It’s good news for those of us concerned about the polarized state of today’s society. Getting together and having a conversation really can make a difference.

But there are two key factors that differentiate more neurally aligned groups from less aligned ones.

The first is the presence of mediators. In the study, volunteers with mediation skills made a big impact by encouraging conversation, listening well, and — crucially — changing their minds 🧠 to reflect group consensus.

“Being willing to change your own mind seems key to getting everyone on the same page,” neuroscientist and study adviser Thalia Wheatley told the New York Times.

And while mediators helped align people, so-called blowhards 👹 could disrupt synchronicity. Groups with just a single person talking over others, derailing the conversation, and trying to “be right” were less neurally synchronized.

In having group conversations, we may not be able to avoid blowhards… but we can all learn how to be more like the mediators. Here’s what some experts suggest are the mediation skills that really matter.

Don’t take things so personally.

We tend to get stuck in to our opinions, so much so that someone disagreeing with us can feel like an affront. A key to happy conversations 😊 is to share your thoughts and feelings without your ego getting in the way. Or, as the popular negotiating book Getting to Yes put it, to “separate the problem from the people.”

Aim for consensuality over neutrality.

In the legal system, mediation is unique in that the outcome is dictated by the participants. The same principle can be applied to conversations that need mediating. In the words of a 2007 study, the aim of a mediator should be “maximizing party control” — that is, getting out of the way to ensure a group consensus 👥 is reached.

Let everyone be heard.

Perhaps the most important role of the conversational mediator is to overrule blowhards. Only when everyone in the conversation has their voice heard can true consensus (or neural alignment) take place. In the Dartmouth study, mediators maximized alignment by, among other tactics, encouraging others to speak. 👏

Photo by Faith Crabtree on Unsplash.

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