Empathy key to deliberative dialogue with deeply divided groups

Empathetic behaviour fosters deliberation between people with strong differences and unequal power, finds recent study.

Dialogue can be difficult in groups where conflict runs deep. Particularly, when some participants have far greater power than others. But moments of constructive exchange can arise, reveal Maia et al in Authority and Deliberative Moments: Assessing Equality and Inequality in Deeply Divided Groups.

Illustrating a case study in Brazil, the authors find that participants with power can feed or starve conversation based on how they source and express their authority.

The study drew slum residents and police officers into conversation on how to create a culture of peace between them. Both groups claimed different types of authority as they discussed their relationship, authors point out. Police officers tended to draw authority from their roles in the social hierarchy. Residents illustrated their concerns with stories and experiences.

The interactions reveal a connection between the participants’ sources of authority and levels of deliberation. It links high levels of deliberation to instances of participants drawing their authority from life experiences and low levels when participants use their functional roles to frame an issue or make a judgment.

The authors outline three behavioral patterns which allow participants to connect across the divide and create reciprocal interactions.

1) Empathetic understanding. Some participants on each side demonstrated a mutual recognition of needs and vulnerabilities.

2) Search for commonalities. Reciprocal relationships were built by finding common ground, taking a wider view of relations, and drawing less powerful members into the exchange of ideas.

3) Reflective self-criticism. Some authority-holders revealed internal dilemmas, invited evaluation, and made space for objections.

The study highlights how experiential knowledge can support communication in unfavourable conditions. A reciprocal relationship emerged where participants were respectfully invited to consider ideas and mutually define the conversation. In moments of deliberation, police officers generated interactions by sharing personal experiences associated with their functional roles.

Rousiley C. M. Maia is Professor of Political Communication in the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Brazil. Danila G. R. Cal is Assistant Professor at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), Brazil. Janine K. R. Bargas is a Ph.D. student in Communication Studies at UFMG. Vanessa V. Oliveira is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication Studies at UFMG. Patricia G. C. Rossini is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, USA. Rafael C. Sampaio is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science in the Federal University of Paraná.

Photo: Max Pixel/cc

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