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How to reach a Russian (or American) who is lost in a sea of disinformation

If you have family members who have gotten separated from reality, try a technique known as ‘conversational receptiveness.’

Red Square, Moscow.Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Misha Katsurin, a Ukrainian restaurateur with a trim beard, an earring, and an 8-month-old son, makes for an unusual guerrilla warrior. But he understands a battleground that could prove decisive in this war. It’s the fight over facts, over what is actually happening versus what his family in Russia and millions like them have been misled to believe. “They exist in another reality,” he says. He discovered this during a phone call with his father in Russia, who did not believe that the war, the bombings, and the brutality were actually taking place.

Katsurin’s Instagram post about the fraught conversation with his father elicited thousands of similar stories of Ukrainians failing to break through to friends and family who rely on Russian state media for their news. So he launched a website, papapover.com (“Papa, believe”), to help pierce the propaganda and give the 11 million Ukrainians with relatives in Russia better tools to succeed in such calls — and to encourage them to keep trying, even if the calls end in screaming matches. “At this point, with Facebook and Twitter gone and independent journalism all but silenced,” Katsurin argues, “relatives are the only media.”

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Several Eastern European friends have told me how crushing these conversations can be. Sisters call sisters or daughters call mothers to describe their terror and share their frantic calculation — do we stay or do we go? — only to find that none of it is believed. Smart, kind friends defend a dictator whose military is bombing maternity hospitals. And when they call out the lying, they are called liars.

Having spent my career studying communication during conflict, I do not envy the task of convincing a loved one that they have been brainwashed by their government. But Russians need to know the truth, and unfortunately, facts and patience from friends and family will not be enough. Facts are too easily denied, and patience frays quickly. But the research conducted in my lab offers a proven strategy for communicating across conflict.

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We train people to practice “conversational receptiveness” — a mode of communication geared at demonstrating that you are actively engaged with your counterpart’s perspective.

The goal is not to help warring parties reach some forced consensus. Across dozens of studies with thousands of participants, we have found that simply by signaling receptiveness, you will be seen as more trustworthy, objective, and intelligent, and the conversation will be less likely to spiral into a screaming match. Instead of damaging a relationship beyond repair, speaking with receptiveness lays the ground for the next conversation.

We created an algorithm that analyzes written language to identify specific words and phrases that people can use to signal receptiveness. So if you’re in a position to reach out to Russians skeptical of war reports — or if you have an American relative who firmly believes, for example, that COVID-19 is a government plot — these approaches might allow the eventual transmission of truth.

First, wherever possible, emphasize agreement, ideally before you start making your case: “We both want a safer world for our children.” This does not mean compromising; it simply means recognizing that reasonable people can agree on many things. You can also use phrases such as “I think we both hope . . . " or “We are both concerned by . . . "

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Second, before launching into your argument, acknowledge other perspectives. Using phrases like “I understand that you’ve heard . . .” or “You told me that . . .” shows that you actually heard them, rather than using all your time offering arguments for your perspective. We have found in multiple experiments that phrases like “I understand that” and “I see your point” make a difference in letting people feel heard.

Even as you present your argument, it helps to hedge your claims. Using words like “sometimes,” “possibly,” and “often” can soften assertions. Acknowledging some room for other outcomes signals willingness to recognize when the other side might have a point. Consider phrases like “I think it’s possible that . . . ,” as in “I think it’s possible that things are happening so fast it’s hard to keep up.”

Finally, even in the most volatile conversations, you have a choice of frame. Instead of saying “I can’t believe you don’t believe me,” you could say, “It’s really important that we understand each other’s position.” Introduce a positive frame with phrases like “I think it’s great when . . . , “ “I really appreciate it when . . . ,” and “It would be so wonderful if . . . .

None of these ideas is a magic spell to wipe away years of accumulated fear, doubt, and deception. But Misha Katsurin is right: Friends and family can be trusted messengers when no one else is, and as painful as these conversations can be, they can make a difference. If you are able to signal that you are truly listening and willing to keep the channel open, you may just create the space for the truth to find a foothold.

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Julia A. Minson is associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.