Many people steer away from difficult conversations to avoid conflict with people with whom they disagree, employing the tried-and-true method of staying away from discussing politics and religion.

But at the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University — a laboratory dedicated to the practice of discussing challenging topics — abortion, immigration, and climate change are all on the table.

Peter Coleman, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University and the lab's founder, told Living Lab Radio the lab has found some ways of approaching difficult topics that can improve conversations between people who disagree.

One of the most important things: set up the conversation so that it isn’t "debate style," a format favored by news media. Coleman said when the lab tried this “pro/con” format, the results were predictable.

“They pretty much … escalate and get stuck,” he said.

In contrast, the lab has introduced study participants to a difficult topic as not as a “pro/con” affair, but rather as a multi-layered issue with many problems at play.

When you show people the complexity of a problem and the nuances of various opinions on the topic, they have a “fundamentally different kind of conversation,” he said. “People are more open to learning and listening to the other side. They ask more questions; they grandstand less.”

When this happens, many people tell the lab that they learned not only about the issue at hand, but also about the other person and their concerns.

“And oftentimes they learn about themselves,” Coleman said.