13 lessons for journalists to build high-quality conversations (Part 2)

I wrote earlier about why building better conversations is an important building block to a healthy local news eco-system.

For those who want to try it themselves, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned this year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

Chatpool: An app inspired by marriage counseling and a Buddhist monk:

The Chatpool team looked to this book as one of its inspirations for designing a debate app that rewards understanding of the opposing side’s argument.

I joined a team of other Stanford students this fall to build an app called Chatpool, which we designed to foster more civilized conversation between people at odds. We were inspired by the idea of how a conversation unfolds in a carpool. What happens when there is disagreement? Because you are in the same physical space, you are motivated to keep a civil discussion — at least until the ride is over. The app’s best feature was a menu of questions and facilitator prompts to help a moderator make quick decisions during a fast-paced debate. The team researched philosophies of Buddhism as well as techniques in marriage counseling to help us design the prompts, with an eye towards teaching participants how to listen.

The lessons (1–4):

  • Set expectations for civility at the beginning of a dialogue: We designed a conversation on our platform where two people could talk through their differences, with expectations for civility outlined at the outset by the moderator.
  • Teach people to overcompensate on listening. We listened to the marriage counseling podcast called “Where Should We Begin?” by Esther Perel, who asked people to practice “integrating the experience of the other” as they have a conversation. This makes it less polarizing. Inspired by that approach, we gave the moderator prompts within the app to teach participants how to summarize the arguments of their opponent.
  • Coach conversationalists to ask questions first: We read the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk. We used his ideas to populate the app with tips for reducing conflict. Those included asking questions of the other person before firing back with an opposing opinion (a method of deep listening) and listening without judging or reacting, a technique that is also often taught and practiced by the best journalistic interviewers.
  • Measure empathy as opposed to domination: After the chat ended, we released the chat log for all to see. Reading it, they could vote on who was a more empathetic, constructive contributor to the discussion — as opposed to voting on who “won” with the best argument. This voting mechanism was designed to motivate participants to seek empathy and understanding as opposed to winning.

A pop-up coffee shop built around engaging conversations

Use this: As part of our design process, we analyzed our users’ wants, behaviors and pain points.

After Chatpool, I was excited to try holding moderated conversations in physical spaces. With my colleagues from the JSK Fellowships’ Team Local, we designed a coffee shop, calling it a “reimagined local news experience.” We instructed visitors to grab a cup of coffee and pair up with a new friend. The next step? Have a simple conversation about one observation about where they live. We did the experiment through a class held by the d.school, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, titled “Design for Influence.”

The lessons (5–7):

  • A coffee shop is a natural place for conversation, community building and connecting. We chose it as a metaphor for this experience for this very reason. Since the experiment, I’ve heard more about how coffee shops have historically been places of conversation and information gathering, including in mid-eighteenth century London, where they were known as places to read and be associated with the city’s “intellectual culture,” according to an article published in Project Muse. I’ve also noticed more journalists taking conversations outside the newsroom and into coffee shops, including those from the Modesto Bee and City Bureau. I’m motivated to test out more moderated conversations in coffee shops, making them more of a place for quality connections instead of spots with ambient noise to help people be productive on their devices.
  • Moderated conversations should have plenty of structure and prompts — don’t hold back! It wasn’t enough to coach people to share an observation about their community with each other. We should have structured the conversation more, giving participants each one minute to share with each other and then a minute to reflect on each other’s words. There was also another element of conversation and listening during the event — a “cookierge” (a play on the concept of concierge) played by team member André Natta, who handed out cookies and listened and interacted with participants, which generated goodwill and a sense of novelty and heightened customer service.
  • Be clear on the goal of the conversation experiment. Our experience had multiple features, including a call to action to read more local news, which we could have more elegantly linked to a goal of elevating community conversations. For future tests, I would aim to have a sharper goal to learn facts and stories about each other as a way to build a sense of community.

A day of listening between Modesto Bee journalists and potential news readers

Journalists from the Modesto Bee, with JSK Fellows, gathered recently in the Bee newsroom to analyze results after their day of listening.

I longed for deeper conversations with more moderation and training after the coffee shop experiment. Several JSK team members teamed up again, including Tim Regan-Porter, Zeba Khan and JulieAnn McKellogg, to design a day of listening between Modesto Bee journalists and potential news readers.

The lessons (8–13):

  • Design deep conversations that are based on values. Early in the academic year, I conducted a series of interviews with potential readers of local news in rural Iowa that relied on a lot of behavioral questions, particularly about how people gather local news when there is no daily newspaper. I was eager to peel back another layer of what motivates potential local news readers by asking values-based questions. For that, my colleague Regan-Porter looked back on the award-winning project, “Macon in the Mirror,” from the Center for Collaborative Journalism, The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting. For this project, students and reporters interviewed close to 700 residents over the course of a year and concluded with a 10-day series reflecting the community’s thoughts, concerns and hopes. We modeled our questionnaire on questions from that project, which included simple, thought-provoking prompts, such as “What are you so good at, you could teach me how to do it?” and “What misconceptions do people have about you and/or where you live?”
  • Longer conversations reveal more than short conversations. This seems obvious, but in our coffee shop experiment, participants were only given a couple of minutes to converse. Here, we gave Bee journalists a page-and-a-half of carefully designed questions that were supposed to let journalists get to know their readers on a deep level. We expected them to last 10 to 20 minutes each, and learned they were going even longer. Journalists requested more time for conversations like these in future experiments.
  • More moderation results in better conversations. We learned from the coffee shop pop-up that people wanted more coaching for meaningful conversations. During our day with Bee journalists, we provided them with a tip sheet for how to hold conversations during a listening exercise— and how this work differed from traditional reporting. We did a few practice sessions before leaving the office. And then JSK fellows who designed the listening day paired up with journalists and offered coaching and resources in real time as the day progressed.
  • Give plenty of time for reflection. To make conversations between business leaders and customers matter, leaders need time to process and draw connections between what they heard from the interviews. For the Modesto listening project, we only budgeted a little over an hour for processing and brainstorming from the interviews and we heard from journalists that they wanted more time to debrief.
  • Measure everything. We designed a feedback form for the Modesto journalists, but I regret not asking the people being interviewed how the conversation felt to them. When I run this event again, I will make sure both parties provide feedback.
  • Do it again. This was my favorite experiment — and one that integrated many of the takeaways my team had learned from earlier experiments. And it’s one I’d like to run again for other newsrooms or businesses that want a new way to understand their customers. Reporters and editors told us it made them think about designing their journalism in a completely different way. They were excited to tell stories that served the needs of their readers.

WHAT’S NEXT:

I plan to design more journalism-inspired conversation experiments to:

  • Increase understanding between people with differing opinions.
  • Recognize and verify facts from another person.
  • Hear and accurately retell a story from a neighbor or a family member.
  • Increase curiosity about people beyond those in affinity groups.
  • Motivate someone to act to solve a systemic problem.
  • Help business leaders understand their employees and their customers.
  • Hold local officials accountable for their decisions and promises.

Have thoughts? Heard of anyone who is doing this well? Email me at lisarossiajr@gmail.com

READING/LISTENING LIST ON BUILDING BETTER CONVERSATIONS: