People can be reluctant to ask someone they strongly disagree with to explain their understanding of the topic that divides them. Doing so can feel like we’re setting ourselves up for a lecture. Research shows, however, that this simple prompt can also induce helpful psychological processes. In a recent series of studies, participants who were asked to explain (rather than freely discuss) topics they felt strongly about tended to exhibit more open-minded reasoning and reported more positive feelings towards their interlocutor.

One of the main reasons for these positive results, the authors argue, is that explanations tend to keep the discourse focused on cause-and-effect mechanisms rather than moralistic arguments. This is crucial for a couple of reasons. First, it tends to induce in the explainer a sense of objective self-distance from the topic (which can be very helpful in keeping the temperature of the conversation in check). Second, since cause-and-effect statements can be objectively contested in ways that moral statements can’t, people will tend to be more cautious about their claims and reflect a bit more on what they’re saying.

In fact, trying to explain a contentious topic can often dissipate what scientists call the illusion of explanatory depth, that is, the belief that we know more about a topic than we actually do. When we realize our inability to explain an issue as deeply as we would like, we tend to become more intellectually humble – and people are usually more accepting of the gaps in their knowledge when they realize these gaps for themselves rather than when others try to point them out.

Finally, asking someone to explain a topic they feel strongly about also offers us the opportunity to listen to them. This is probably the most important point, since none of the positive effects outlined above are likely to materialize if the explainer doesn’t feel they are being listened to. When they do, not only are they more likely to put in a better effort in thinking things through, but they will almost invariably feel warmer towards the listener as well.

We should keep in mind, however, that there is no foolproof technique for preventing sensitive political discussions from derailing. In fact, this sort of technique can backfire at times. If motivated by the desire to win an argument or to justify one’s own position, inducing explanation-oriented discourse can lead to self-confirmatory, close-minded reasoning and to even more out-group antipathy. But when prompted by genuine desire to understand and tempered by a little bit of self-distance, getting ourselves and others to explain issues rather than argue about them holds the promise of more productive exchanges, even if both sides end up sticking to their initial positions.

For further discussion on how and why asking for explanations can help depolarize sensitive discussions, check out the study below:

Elnakouri, A., Huynh, A. C., & Grossmann, I. (2023). Explanation-Oriented (vs. Free) Discussion Promotes Open-Minded Political Reasoning. PREPRINT.