The Complex Business of Changing People’s Minds

Image by Monsterkoi via Pixabay

“Too often we… enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

John F. Kennedy

At its core, social change leadership is about changing people’s minds. How did you come to have your position on an issue? Was it an event in your personal life? Was it scientific data, or a startling statistic? Did a trusted person convince you?

We can have difficulty knowing exactly how our opinions formed. It is a complicated business. It is usually a combination of factors. It might be strongly-held personal values, or the opinions of people you believe to be knowledgeable, or maybe just gut feelings (see the image below). There are so many filters through which we get information, and form opinions, it is unlikely that an approach relying heavily on data, “facts,” and evidence will be enough to change minds.

Image: Lbeaumont, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Confirmation Bias

Once a person acquires what they know, it can be difficult for them to consider changing their mind. For many people, their stated beliefs have become almost indistinguishable from their identity as a human being. Admitting they are wrong about one issue might make them question everything that they believe. The thought that something made them question something they thought to be true can often motivate them to seek out more arguments to rationalize what they already believe. This is called confirmation bias.

It is important to note that confirmation bias isn’t simply looking for like-minded sources to counter evidence-based arguments. The bias also assumes that the evidence that supports one’s position is more important or valuable, even if it is not supported by data, science, or rigorous analysis. In a world with social media, the biased search for, and interpretation of information is easier than ever. We may recognize that those with opposing views are repeating information from the same limited number of sources.

One key to understanding how you might change minds is to make sure that you are not in an echo chamber yourself. If you want to overcome confirmation bias, and make objective decisions, you must keep an open mind and be willing to be proven wrong. It isn’t enough to know what an adversary believes. You need to find out why they believe it. Challenge yourself to look at things objectively.

Changing the Approach

(Note: I don’t have a degree in rhetoric, or claim expertise in psychology, marketing or any professional field that asserts to have a scientific approach to persuasion. I’m just suggesting a few approaches that community organizers and others have found to be successful.)

You need to change some minds. Screaming, belittling, and drowning people in data doesn’t seem to be working. You may need a radical new approach. As counterintuitive as it might seem, imagine an approach that begins with humility, empathy, and compassion. These are not signs of weakness. They are indicators that you want to enter into a civil exchange where both parties are heard and understood.

It is Necessary to Listen to Individuals

You won’t change minds at a large rally. Rallies are for preaching to the converted. People’s opinions are very personal. As I said earlier, values and beliefs are core parts of an individual’s identity. Your success at changing minds depends on authentic, interpersonal communication. As economist Thomas Sowell put it, “If you want to get each individual’s honest opinion, you don’t want that opinion to be influenced by others who are present, much less allow a group to coordinate what they are going to say.”

Rapoport’s Rules are a good way to structure an honest, respectful, conversation with someone who’s mind you’d like to change. According to RationalWiki, Rapoport’s Rules “. . .  are a set of rules intended to encourage productive, critical discourse. In particular, the rules seek to avoid straw man representations of an opponent’s argument and to avoid the backfire effect that criticism often provokes.” There are four general rules:

  1. “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”

You should present choices based on a vision of how things might be. People need choices. Listen to people describe how their opinions reflect, or have an impact on their lives. What assumptions are they starting from? What do they believe that you do not? In what ways are their values reflected in the vision you present? The more you understand that, the more you can use it to your advantage.

Be genuinely curious. Admit your ignorance. Ask them to point you to more information about the larger, remaining points of contention. If they are unable to point you to any “authoritative” source you may be able to plant some seeds of doubt. Ask them if they agree with 50% of your position, or if you are feeling confident, maybe 60%. Try to discover the personal connection they have to the ideas on which you agree.

Evidence and Truth

Bertrand Russell said, “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.” If you seek social change, you know that support for the status quo is not usually rooted in evidence-based decision making.

Evidence-based facts are, however, still important. They always matter in courtrooms, and in science. And even though they should also matter in matters of policy and public opinion, for many people evidence does not equal truth. You cannot rely on evidence alone to change people’s minds. You have to be prepared to make emotional appeals. Your success will appeal to shared values and the recognition of the life experiences of those whose minds you seek to change.

Related Resources on This Site

It is important to identify issues that people view as zero-sum questions. (See my article, “Getting Beyond Either/Or,” I look at thinking about ways that adversarial, zero-sum issues might be re-framed to explore productive dialogue around differences of opinion.)

It isn’t necessary or realistic to convince everyone to embrace your point of view. My piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” reminds us that when you’re in the business of changing minds, you are not only talking to people who have dug in their heels in direct opposition to the change you seek. There are undecided people, as well as people whose commitment to the status quo is not necessarily very strong.

Author: johnhamerlinck

I am a writer, and a reader, speaker, consultant, and trainer with a fascination about how social change happens. I live in Minnesota, USA. Medium - https://medium.com/@HamerlinckJ

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