On Wednesday evening, a group of nearly 30 graduate students in STEM fields gathered at the University of Michigan Taubman Health Sciences Library for the first of several workshops this week on compassion in human interaction and argumentation, hosted by the University’s Engaging Scientists in Policy and Advocacy student organization. At the event, “Facts Aren’t Enough,” Lilly Ellis, a doctoral fellow at Eastern Michigan University, presented the group with methods to conduct conversations with people who fundamentally disagree with or “do not trust” science.
The purpose of Ellis’s workshop was to teach scientists to foster compassion for the perspectives of those who disagree with scientific fact. She noted this phenomenon typically surrounds controversial topics, using the examples of genetically modified organisms, climate change and vaccination throughout the evening.
“People who don’t have science as their way of understanding the world know a lot about a lot of things about the world that I don’t and that we, as scientists, don’t know,” Ellis said. “I think that is valuable.”
Ellis was brought to the University by Engaging Scientists in Policy and Advocacy, a student organization which aims to translate science into accessible terms so it may be used by policymakers or others to influence societal change. ESPA board member William Dean, Rackham student, said “despite the name,” ESPA is not just a group for scientists.
“We do a lot of different programs that are about everything from basic science communication skills to more specific, policy-based workshops talking about how to do government advocacy, how to talk to legislators and things like that,” Dean said.
Ellis’s presentation was adapted from work she’d done with the Know Us Project, a program run through the Michigan Project for Informed Public Policy. KUP hosts training sessions in “evidence-based personal conversations with the people in our lives,” Ellis told the group.
KUP typically provides training to queer people on how they advocate for themselves, but Ellis adapted the presentation for her audience of graduate students.
“The difference in this conversation is that y’all are the dominant group,” Ellis said. “As scientists, we come from a place of privilege, and so the expectation should be on us, with our access to education, to do work for people who don’t have the same privileges we do, and part of that is setting aside our own emotions to be able to pay attention to theirs.”
Ellis began her presentation by telling the group the conversations they will be having will likely require them to engage in emotional labor, so she advised them to take self-care measures. Ellis guided the room in a progressive muscle relaxation exercise.
Ellis had the group close their eyes, take a deep breath, and take note of bodily experience. She then asked everyone to tense and subsequently relax various body parts, moving from their toes to their face. Ellis said this exercise often quells her anxiety when she has to take part in difficult conversations.
Then Ellis moved into the portion of her presentation regarding the steps people should take when engaging in difficult or frustrating conversations.
Ellis’s first tip was to “meet people where they are,” meaning one has to respect the reasons why someone else may hold the beliefs they do. Dean said this is difficult for scientists because it often goes against their argumentative impulses.
“As scientists, we tend to worry a lot about evidence and about presenting the facts, even when the person we’re talking to doesn’t want to hear that,” Dean said.
Ellis acknowledged the difficulty of the task, saying she has had trouble with it a lot of times, but she also said engaging in this practice would ultimately make difficult conversations go much smoother.
Ellis’s second piece of advice was to communicate understanding and respect. She posed a hypothetical: You are on the phone with a nurse, and they are giving you directions to the hospital so you can sign a form for a loved one to receive important medical attention, but their directions assume you’re on the opposite side of town.
“Are you going to listen to the nurse’s directions? No, probably not,” Ellis said. “(You’re) going to get wild, and that’s totally normal, totally human.”
Ellis advised the group to validate, empathize and refrain from being defensive. She outlined six levels of validation, ranging from paying attention to explicitly stating agreement.
The step following validation, Ellis, is accurate emotional expression which entails “noticing I’m having a feeling, being able to identify it and communicating it effectively.” She told the group to be conscious of their tone and body language along with their words when attempting this step to ensure authenticity.
“Share your feelings in such a way that they’re human and understandable,” Ellis said. “Then, for somebody to say, ‘I don’t feel that way,’ they have to feel like kind of a jerk.”
Ellis ended her presentation by reminding her audience these practices will not change minds overnight. She said from her experience, it takes a long time before you see tangible change in the ideas of people who once had opinions dissimilar to yours.
Environmental Engineering graduate student Sonja Gagen said swaying people to adopt her way of thinking is not always her ultimate goal.
“In listening to today, it seems like it’s really important to spend the time, first of all, getting to know where someone else is coming from and why they’re coming from there and… if you’re trying to persuade someone, leave that out of it for some time until you have a sense of where they’re coming from,” Gagen said. “And if you do want to bring that in, then wording it in a way that is close to their perspective.”
Dean said he hopes to be “a force for science in the world,” and he explained this will require him to interact with people who will not be as receptive to his scientific arguments as his graduate student peers may be.
“I think (these skills) will help me be a better communicator to all sorts of people and not just other scientists,” Dean said.
Gagan expressed a similar sentiment, saying her work gains value by being integrated into society. Therefore, she feels she has to be able to communicate it to laymen so her science can be implemented and spark change.
“I think one of the really important things we need to do in everyday life but also in academia is we need to connect it to community so it has a purpose,” Gagan said.