Leaders tell us that they’ve spent significant portions of their time over the past several months figuring out how to best communicate internally and externally about the Mideast conflict. One goal some have aspired to is what you might call “constructive communication,” which is underpinned by nuance and the pursuit of mutual understanding. (Others have focused more on damage control and minimizing communication for fear of the risks involved.)
We reached out to Deb Roy, an MIT professor who heads the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, to understand how its frameworks could be applied in workplaces. MIT’s administration has asked Roy’s group to provide tools and methods to facilitate discussions among students and assist faculty and staff navigating campus tensions since the Hamas attack on Israel. (Roy previously was chief media scientist at Twitter and published landmark research on the spread of false news online.)
As Roy explains, at the core of the center’s approach is a focus on small-group sharing by individuals of their experiences. It’s an alternative to big town hall convenings or discussions centered around opinions, which can be less constructive. His group is creating technology tools to enable such an approach and scale its impact across big organizations and communities. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
What does ‘constructive communication’ mean in the context of a workplace?
First just a word about the word ‘constructive.’ When we started using it, I would sometimes be asked, ‘What are you constructing if it’s constructive communication?’ There are a lot of ways to answer that, but one that stuck for me is that you’re constructing a more multidimensional and nuanced understanding of others as opposed to caricatures and stereotypes. At the heart of the work we began now many years ago, that was the idea of creating spaces for this kind of nuance.
Listening is really at the heart of what we’ve been after and surfacing under-heard voices, under-heard perspectives. What that tends to look like in our work is a focus on creating spaces where people feel comfortable sharing personal stories, personal experiences.
A lot of what we find when you ask people to give their input, it’s often in the form of surveys and focus groups, which tends to collect opinions. Opinions are certainly good for some things. But when we’re talking about constructive communication where there’s poor trust or poor understanding between different groups or between people, it’s extraordinary what will happen when you give people a space to share personal experiences and then create possibilities for people to listen and to hear one another’s experiences. So there’s a focus on stories and experiences before—or instead of—opinions and facts.
The aim is to build trust, empathy, mutual respect between people and across groups. Then we can do various things, support each other and cooperate where necessary, have arguments and debates and agree to disagree.
A lot of our work is also in developing technology. What we found is where human beings are most likely to be authentic and be willing to be vulnerable and share personal experiences tends to be in small controlled contexts. There’s also some very exciting and powerful ways in which technology can help scale those conversations. For example, if a workplace has hundreds or thousands of people and you want some shared understanding of what people are experiencing, it’s not enough to have, in my opinion, small conversations because if what is said in the room stays in the room, then the larger connective tissue can’t be created.
How would you use a tool to scale that sort of conversation?
With the consent of the people in the conversation, they record themselves and then share excerpts of those conversations with others. If there is a situation where you have low trust between groups or a breakdown in understanding between groups, just bringing everyone into a big room and saying, ‘Let’s talk it out,’ or ‘Let’s have a town hall meeting,’ for a variety of reasons often doesn’t work and it seems to be getting worse. That’s something we’ve heard from a lot of organizational leaders that they no longer are willing to have an open mic and just have everyone come in.
So being able to share what’s happening across different groups is one concept. This is not a new concept—we have breakout groups and we come back together and someone reports back what the group talked about. If you’ve ever been in one of those breakout groups, often you listen to the person who summarizes and you’re like, ‘Wait, that’s not what I remember,’ or ‘Those are not the things I would’ve highlighted.’ Or even if they are, did the others really understand the nuance of what had happened?
Of course not. It’s kind of abstracted. So there’s the ability to take a powerful moment or powerful story that was shared in one group and play it back so that someone else can hear it, but to do that in a way that can always be done with the consent of the person whose voice you’re sharing.
The second concept is, if you have large numbers of people sharing, to do what we call sensemaking or community sensemaking to find themes that will often emerge across conversations. If you have the same prompt: ‘Is there something, a hope or a concern you have about your experience in your group, in your department. in your workplace? And what’s an experience you’ve had that relates to that hope or concern?’ If you ask a question like that with enough people in a workplace who maybe are in very different roles, different places in the power hierarchy, it can be revealing how different someone’s experience is that you have no idea that we’re coming to the same place every day and someone else is experiencing it so differently than I am.
Other times, two groups may feel like ‘I have nothing in common with that group, they just don’t get us.’ And then you listen, you realize there’s actually commonalities, there’s themes that emerge. Sense-making is this ability to discover the themes that connect stories and lift those connected stories up so you can see the patterns. That’s another really powerful capability that we’ve developed technology to enable.
Can you share an example of a workplace- or business-related conversation prompt?
Let me give you an example, which is timely. The workplace is where I work on the faculty at MIT. You might have heard that MIT and some other college campuses are experiencing extraordinary tension in our communities. After the Hamas attack on Israel and the war and everything that has transpired over the last couple of months, we’re having a lot of challenges on campus. So we’ve actually been asked by the president of MIT to bring our tools and methods naturally to our own—it’s both a workplace and it’s also a place to study.
We have not actually used this prompt yet, but I was asked how would we actually approach what’s happening in this moment on campus? The sample prompt that we wrote just as an example, is the following. Imagine you’re a student, staff member, or a faculty member and you’re in a private but recorded conversation where you’ve given permission to record, but you’ll decide which parts can be heard further.
The facilitator turns to the group and says, ‘When you reflect on the current turmoil in the world, what is a hope or concern you have about our community’s future and your place in that future? And what is an experience you’ve had related to this hope or concern?’
So it’s connected to the turmoil in the world, however you might interpret that. Many people today if asked this question at MIT, naturally their mind will go to the Middle East. But we’re not asking you for an opinion about the Middle East or about that turmoil. We’re asking you about hope or concern. So if you’re feeling hopeful, if you’ve seen some positivity, you can name that. If it’s a concern, you can name that. But then really the meat of what we’re hoping will surface is that you then share an experience that brings you to that hope or that concern.
By the way, this is a conversation. There are others in the room and they’re invited to actually, if they wish, respond after they hear. These groups are small. Four to six people is a sweet spot. It can be a little larger, could be eight people. Others will respond and they will think of an experience they had. So there are themes that emerge even in these small groups, even before you get to connecting the dots across conversations.
Read the full transcript of our conversation for more details from Roy about how to think about the risks of initiating discussions in charged environments, how to use small group conversations as an alternative to big organizational town-hall meetings, and the leadership style that such an approach requires.