At the same time that there is increased pressure to talk about prejudice openly and honestly, there is also an increased risk of being ostracized or “canceled” for saying the wrong thing.  We thought that talking about one’s prejudices might actually be helpful for reducing prejudice if the person listening provides full attention and conveys understanding, empathy, and non-judgment.

We tested whether speakers who receive this kind of attentive listening report more self-insight and openness to change in relation to their prejudiced attitude than speakers who converse with listeners who give little feedback that they really “hear” and understand what speakers are saying. We expected that high-quality listening might even lead to lower prejudiced attitudes compared to inattentive or judgmental listening.

Across a pilot study and three experiments, we found evidence supporting the importance of high-quality listening when discussing prejudiced attitudes. For example, in an in-person experiment conducted in the UK, we asked participants to have a face-to-face conversation with a researcher about a negative bias the participant held. In the high-quality listening condition, the listener maintained constant eye contact and used non-verbal signals such as head nodding that convey interest and curiosity. The researcher also conveyed understanding, empathy, and support to the speaker but did not express agreement or disagreement with what the participant said. In the regular listening condition, the listener was mostly silent throughout the conversation.

Participants in the high-quality listening condition reported they had more self-insight than speakers in the regular listening condition and also reported greater openness to change their attitude. Importantly, they also reported more favorable attitudes—that is, less prejudice—toward the group they talked about than those in the regular listening condition. Participants who received high quality listening had higher self-insight and openness to change, which led to lower prejudice.

We replicated this study in Israel. Instead of having participants select the group that they would talk about, we first assessed their prejudice to different groups and then assigned them to write about a specific group that they were prejudiced against. Even in this more challenging discussion, high-quality listening led to more openness and less prejudiced attitudes compared to regular-quality listening.

Our research suggests that conversations about prejudice may be beneficial when they are held with listeners who convey empathy, understanding, and support. Future studies may want to examine whether this is also true when people express very high levels of prejudice and how long the beneficial effects of high-quality listening last.

In summary, our research highlighted the important role that high-quality listening plays in facilitating constructive conversations and suggests that listeners can help speakers feel more open and gain insights when responding in ways that convey empathy, understanding, and support.   It’s obviously hard to talk openly about prejudice, but our research suggests that these conversations can be useful if listeners respond correctly.

For Further Reading

Itzchakov, G., Weinstein, N., Legate, N., & Amar, M. (2020). Can high-quality listening predict lower speakers’ prejudiced attitudes? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Itzchakov, G., DeMarree, K. G., Kluger, A. N., & Turjeman-Levi, Y. (2018). The listener sets the tone: High-quality listening increases attitude clarity and behavior-intention consequences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin44(5), 762-778.

Itzchakov, G., & Kluger, A. N. (2018). The power of listening in helping people change. Harvard Business Review.

Itzchakov, G., Kluger, A. N., & Castro, D. R. (2017). I am aware of my inconsistencies but can tolerate them: The effect of high quality listening on speakers’ attitude ambivalence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(1), 105-120.

Kalla, J. L., & Broockman, D. E. (2020). Reducing exclusionary attitudes through interpersonal conversation: evidence from three field experiments. American Political Science Review, 114(2), 410-425.

Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A. K., & Ryan, R. M. (2013). The integrative process: New research and future directions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 69-74.

Guy Itzchakov is an Assistant Professor at the University of Haifa, Department of Human Services. Guy’s focal line of research examines the effects of high-quality listening on attitude structure and change.

Netta Weinstein is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading, School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences. Netta’s focus is on constructive motivational climates, emotional well-being, and interpersonal functioning.

Nicole Legate is an Associate Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, Department of Psychology, studying prejudice, stigma, and motivation.

Moty Amar is an Associate Professor at the Ono Academic College, School of Business. He also serves there as the chair of the department of advertising and marketing communications and as the principal of the behavioral research laboratory.