“If we manage conflict constructively, we harness its energy for creativity and development.”
Just because people share the same goal around creating change, does not mean that they will agree on everything. Effective social change leaders recognize the importance of addressing internal conflicts early, and in a way that improves relationships among allies. Even if a dispute seems like a small thing it needs to be addressed. What seems like a small thing to one person might be the key to trust or commitment to another.
Sometimes conflict appears to be about one thing, but it is, in fact, related to a variety of things. This reality is commonly illustrated by an iceberg metaphor. Factors such as culture, values, and assumptions are always present beneath the conflict in question.
Not every conflict involving people who are different is caused by cultural differences, but recognizing cultural differences is particularly important. Cultural differences can include things such as:
attitudes towards conflict
approaches to completing tasks
ways people come to know things
We cannot know all things about all cultures, and there are no universal intercultural problem-solving methods. These two things, however, are true: 1) in every culture people communicate because they want to be listened to and they want to be understood; and 2) in every culture people respond to respect and disrespect.
Individual Conflict Styles: a Starting Point
Many people find it useful to try to determine where individuals fit on an inventory of conflict styles. The most popular description of individual styles is probably the Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, developed in the early 1970s by Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann. The assessment instrument itself is under copyright, and can be purchased, but the categories as they are mapped in terms of their relationship to assertiveness, and cooperativeness, are widely known (see image below).
“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.
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:
“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.”
You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
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.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
An elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive synopsis that you use to create interest in your issue, a project, or an idea. It is called an elevator message because you should be able to articulate your message in the time that a short elevator ride would take.
How do you create a message that can be delivered in 30 seconds or less? First, remember that the goal is not to try to squeeze as much information as possible into your 30 seconds. What you are trying to do is to give someone one compelling idea to think about (or if you’re really successful, act on) that relates to your cause.
I am always saying that the usually unspoken questions at the heart of many conversations are: 1) what’s in it for me; and 2) what’s it going to cost? Self-interest motivates people. This is important to remember when thinking about your message.
I recommend trying to create an elevator speech in just five sentences or phrases:
Say who you are (Hi, I’m John).
Get their attention (shocking or surprising data point or something that speaks directly to commonly shared values).
Note your group’s ultimate goal and general strategy (“We work to end (issue) by (one or two primary strategies.”).
State succinctly how that benefits the listener.
Share how can they find out more information.
Some more tips:
Use natural language. Practice your speech aloud, and at a conversational pace.
It should not sound “memorized.”
Read the room. Depending on your audience, you may need to have more than one benefit ready to explain.
If you are part of an organization, or an organized group, you should not all be delivering identical messages.
Note: I realize that more than half of my readers are not U.S.-based, so I apologize in advance for what is probably a very American-centric bit of writing. If there are similarly frustrating phrases where you live, feel free to comment below.
There are certain phrases that make me cringe. My negative reaction to these frequently repeated expressions is rooted in the ways that they can be obstacles to creating change in the world. Here are four of my least favorite phrases.
“It is what it is.”
Being told to “deal with” a frustrating situation because there is nothing you can do to change it, sounds like an instruction to give up. If a condition is unacceptable, there is nothing the people who benefit from the status quo like to hear more than, “all we can do is accept it and get over it.” When you hear, “it is what it is,” the best response is to come up with strategies to create change despite the situation, not give up because of it.
“No offense, but . . .”
Obviously, when you hear this phrase, you are about to be offended. The reason a person will use this phrase when talking to you is that they think that you need to know that they believe that they are smarter than you are. They don’t, however, simply use this thinly veiled passive-aggressiveness to challenge facts. In my experience, “No offense, but,” is frequently the introduction to any number of logical fallacies. It’s a power play often followed by nonsense. Know your stuff. Hold your ground.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
I understand that many people find comfort in the thought that a supreme being’s providence makes a horrible reality perhaps a bit more tolerable. Other folks like to explain things based on the alignment of the stars and planets. I’m not here to ask you to abandon your belief system.
There are times, however, when changes in human designed policies and practices are at the core of some terrible things in the world. Yes, everything does happen for a reason, and if we take the time to analyze the situation, we can figure out what those reasons are. And if those reasons can be addressed by correcting flawed human constructs, shouldn’t we do what we can to make those changes?
“In these trying/uncertain times.”
I do not disagree that a global pandemic has created disruption and uncertainty in people’s lives. I also know that for poor and marginalized people, life has always been trying and uncertain. I am not interested in simply getting the world back to a pre-COVID state. I want the world to be better than that.
The pandemic has given lip service to “all of us being in this together.” But in reality, this extraordinary event has reinforced the harsh realities of inequality. Poor people got poorer healthcare. People were deemed “essential workers,” yet were often not paid enough to meet their basic needs. As we move toward returning to “normal,” we need to remember to continue to work on reducing the uncertainty in everyone’s lives.
Creating change is about shifting people’s perceptions. The opposed and the indifferent will not engage in a 180 degree philosophical turnaround on their own. That’s why we develop strategic communication plans — to bring people to our side by appealing to our shared values.
At times, however, would-be change agents spend inordinate amounts of time seemingly trying to persuade the already persuaded. It’s pretty easy to follow only people with whom you agree on social media, visit only websites that share your worldview, and have conversations only with likeminded people.
I have written previously on themes related to changing people’s minds. Here are links to three of those posts:
Having made the point about the primacy of changing hearts and minds, it is important to recognize that there is still a place for “preaching to the converted.” Political strategists refer to it as energizing the base.
G.K. Chesterton once said, “I believe in preaching to the converted; for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.” People often know in their gut why something needs to change, but they sometimes lack the words to effectively refute opposing viewpoints.
As author and activist Dan Savage put it, “Preaching to the choir actually arms the choir with arguments and elevates the choir’s discourse. There’s a reason the right does it and does it well and triumphs.”
This doesn’t mean that you give your allies boilerplate responses to every possible question they may run into. When you do that you risk marginalizing critical diversity of voices in your coalition. Instead, give them the frameworks, filters, and value propositions that can counter a variety of objections.
You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.
— Margaret Atwood
Storytelling is important. People have always told stories. The art of storytelling predates written language. It still very much plays a significant role in how we understand the world in which we live. Storytelling is therefore, a very important aspect of bringing about change in the world.
Stories shine light on realities we might otherwise miss. They can also motivate people to act. Sometimes we see ourselves in stories. If our experiences are like those of a character, we may learn the same lesson that they have learned. We can come to the realization that our values and our concerns are shared more widely than we may have believed. Stories can articulate a vision of what we can achieve individually and collectively. They can be both inspirational, and aspirational.
Stories, however, aren’t just about seeing ourselves. Vicariously walking in someone else’s shoes is one of the most appealing aspects of stories. Stories help us feel empathy toward others. They allow us to experience the joy, or the sorrow that others have felt. Stories provoke and educate. They can provide cautionary tales that remind us of what happens when we fail to act in a caring and humane manner.
A Few Tips and Resources
You rarely have enough time to show someone that perfect documentary film. There isn’t time for metaphor-laden, complex narratives. Your opportunity to touch someone’s heart and mind with a story is more likely to occur in a period of under five minutes. Your story should feature relatable, authentic, characters with clear, demonstrated values.
This may sound obvious, but it is important for a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should start with a compelling statement, and establish the humanity of the subject. The middle develops a clearly defined conflict that explores values, and chooses actions. The ending resolves the conflict in a way that illustrates a position or teaches a lesson. The story should end with a memorable line.
There are lots of people out there who know much more about storytelling than I do. Below are some good resources to help you craft stories that will touch people, and move them to act on behalf of creating the change that you’re working toward. Now go out and tell your story.
“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
What types of assumptions cloud our judgement? When we are laser-focused on obtaining an outcome, what sort of thinking might cause us to make a strategic misstep?
There are dozens of varieties of cognitive biases that can distort our logic. One of the most common is to have a tendency to think we know what other people are thinking, or what their mental state is. These forms of bias can result from false reasoning, arrogance, ideology, or simply an inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”
I work in education, where it is not uncommon to witness a bias known as the “curse of knowledge.” You may have had the experience of sitting in a college classroom where the professor falsely assumes that the students have the appropriate background knowledge to understand material that is clearly way over everyone’s head.
Everyone does not know what you know. Even if they have the same information, they may be interpreting it differently than you. Intellectual snobbishness isn’t a great strategy for learning; nor is it a great strategy to gain allies and supporters. Convey facts and evidence in ways that resonate with peoples’ experiences. New information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know, so try to identify common experience to use as context.
No matter how much time we spend interacting with other people, we are always to a great degree focused on the center of our own personal universe. It isn’t necessarily egocentric. We just notice and think about the things that we ourselves see, without ever really knowing how much others notice and think about those same things. A phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” suggests that someone may have a tendency to mistakenly think that they are as much at the center of someone else’s world as they are at the center of their own. A good rule for leaders is: get over yourself. Being a change agent is not about you. It is about the individual lives of everyone affected by a misguided current state of affairs.
When engaged in a struggle for social change, the ‘us versus them’ frameworks that we create for ourselves are rooted in the belief that our ideas are better than our opponents’ ideas. If we come to the dangerous conclusion that this is simply because we are smarter than our opponents, then we may also jump to the similarly dangerous conclusion that our knowledge of them is greater than their knowledge of us. What people know, and what they believe are two different things.
There is another problem that comes with believing that we know people better than we actually do. There is something that people who study these things refer to as, “extrinsic incentives bias.” This extends our lack of knowing others to the realm of knowing what motivates them.
Understanding people’s motivations is crucial for creating social change. Extrinsic incentives bias is assuming that people put more value on extrinsic incentives like money, than they do on intrinsic incentives like safety, or happiness. People’s motivations are not always easy to understand, or make assumptions about (See my post “Quality of Life Versus Standard of Living”).
Not surprisingly, the most accurate way to find out what people are thinking, is to ask them. Check your assumptions, regardless of how sure you believe that they are correct. Time spent listening to the people you want to support your cause is always time well spent.
Kent Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do you respond to the charge that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down 80%, while heavy sack beatings are up a shocking 900%?
Homer: Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.
– The Simpsons, “Homer the Vigilante”
We live in a world where civil discourse has become a rare commodity. There is little productive debate on topics of great importance, because people of influence and affluence have decided to force every issue into a framework consisting of lines drawn in the sand. This presents a tremendous challenge not only to democracy, but also to anyone advocating for social change.
I am not a scholar of the art of rhetoric. Nor do I claim to understand how argument and debate manifest themselves in cultures other than the one in which I live. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how you might, or might not want to approach arguing.
Arguing as Seed Planting
There are different definitions of “winning” an argument. An argument does not have to be a knock-down-drag-out fight. Sometimes the win simply consists of giving the other person something to think about.
Unless it is a unique situation involving instant replay enabling rules, when a coach or manager in any sport argues with a referee, they do not usually expect that a call will be immediately overturned. They are, however, planting seeds of concern or doubt in the mind of the official. If I tell you that number 12 is routinely breaking a rule, you will probably pay more attention to number 12 as the game moves forward.
Don’t Argue Values
The issues that we disagree on are laden with personal values. People have opposing views on issues because they have conflicting values. I dislike chocolate ice cream. I love vanilla ice cream. You will never convince me that chocolate ice cream is preferable to vanilla ice cream. When you argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, what is in dispute is a value. It is a preference, not a fact.
We should not fall into a trap of engaging those with whom we disagree in arguments about values. If you argue, it should be about facts. Facts still matter, and your facts should always be accompanied by evidence. In fact, next time you feel yourself being pulled into an argument, try the following approach. Don’t immediately set out trying to change the other person’s mind. Don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, articulate as clearly as succinctly as possible, the reasoning that supports your position. When you meet a skeptical person explain to them why you have taken your stand.
Don’t Argue – at Least Not with Everyone
There is a psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance. It suggests that people have a hard time dealing with the stress created by simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It is believed that in order to reduce the discomfort created by the conflicting ideas, people will avoid the introduction of the conflicting ideas whenever possible. There are multiple research studies that suggest that people often see attacks on their belief as attacks on their identity, thus making them dig in their heels even more, thus increasing divisiveness.
If you refer back to my piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” you will see a strategy that may be useful when you’ve identified where a person sits on the continuum of opinion of the issue in question. The idea is to avoid the line in the sand people by focusing on moving passive opposition to a neutral state; neutral people to a passively supporting state; and passively supportive people to a fully committed state. Read that full post here.
Agree with Your Opponent
Using a type of paradoxical thinking, you might use an approach that doesn’t directly argue with a person, but rather, tells them that they are right. Then, using their assumptions, you come up with absurd examples that prove their point. Fair warning, this technique can backfire so be sure to practice it in some friendly, inconsequential settings first.
Go Ahead and Argue
Finally, if you absolutely have to throw down the gauntlet, try to go in with some sort of strategic framework. Here is an example of some tips which you might want to use to engage with your adversary. They come from, “10 Tips On Going For An Argument Win” by Siobhan Harmer (See the full article for details).
Start off pleasantly
Base your arguments on facts
Respect the opinions of the other side
It does not hurt to admit your mistakes
Try to have your adversary agree with you
Ignore statements that have no merit
Always keep an open mind during arguments
Give your adversary the time to talk
Play Up Your Arguments
That’s all I’m going to say on the subject for now, so don’t argue (or do . . . it’s up to you).
“The reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue.” – The Dalai Lama
We too frequently fall into the trap of dividing the world into simplistic, either/or categories. Things are either good or bad. Ideas are either liberal or conservative. Forget about purple; states are either red or blue, right?
Don’t imagine that the same person could be simultaneously progressive, liberal or conservative depending on the particular concern under consideration. Don’t imagine that a deeper analysis of an issue might expose degrees of political belief, or of good and bad. A world of absolutes is just so much easier – so much more convenient.
Letting everyone know that you have some sort of ideologically pure path to get to the mythical outcome, seems more important than understanding what that outcome might actually mean. As Albert Einstein put it, “Perfection of means and confusion of ends seems to characterize our age.”
What makes people interesting, are their contradictions. We all know people who are both introverts and extroverts, or both humble and egotistical. There is a long list of personal traits that bear out the fact that we live along multiple continuums of belief and behavior. Why then can we not seem to recognize this reality when it comes to questions around ideology and values?
The roots of either/or perspectives might lie in zero-sum thinking, meaning that you believe that one side wins only if the other side loses. It is a narrow framework that despises constructive dialogue, and compromise.
This distorted winner-take-all perspective leads to fear-driven decisions. It breeds fear, xenophobia, racism, and a boatload of other paranoia. Emotion and rumor trump logic and evidence. People build walls and draw lines in the sand.
We can get past the either/or trap by concentrating just a little effort on our communication skills. Consider the shift from adversarial, to dialogic communication outlined in the table below.
If we hope to effectively address the multitude of problems facing our world, it is clear that we are going to need less “either/or” and more “both/and.” As Wendell Berry said, “If you start a conversation with the assumption that you are right or that you must win, obviously it is difficult to talk.” It is, however, possible. Here are a few simple tips to get started:
Find a safe space for private, one-on-one conversations with people whose positions on issues differ from your own.
Do not enter these conversations as if they are contests.
Listen carefully and avoid constructing your own argument in your head while they are talking.
Ask clarifying questions.
Don’t take disagreements personally.
Focus on sharing ideas and creating new ones informed by your common, as well as your competing values.