Post No.: 0511
We’ve probably all been in situations where we’ve confronted people we’ve strongly disagreed with regarding certain moral evaluations, ethical stances or political viewpoints of theirs, and tried to convince them that their views are wrong or bad. It happens on social media, in bars, universities, around dinner tables, etc. – from all sides of all debates. And they usually achieve nothing but exasperation!
That’s because to be more persuasive when it comes to trying to change someone’s feelings or attitudes about a tough issue – we must ask questions and listen first, and listen sincerely.
This isn’t the most natural thing to do with someone we disagree with but don’t just go into talking on and on without listening first. You don’t have to agree with what the other person thinks but you do need to understand their points of view and accept them as a person first in order to pave the way towards a constructive dialogue. From what we discover by listening to them, we can understand their legitimate concerns and values, and then morally reframe our arguments to appeal to their legitimate concerns and values rather than our own. For instance, they might be most concerned about the impact of some proposed security policy on their liberties, livelihood or traditions, hence it’d be pointless trying to persuade them that something is good for their safety when they’re more concerned about their fluffy freedoms. In which case they might get on board with you if you can help explain how the security measure will overall protect their liberties rather than obstruct them.
‘Deep canvassing’ during political, charity or awareness campaigns is a process based on asking sensitive questions and listening to the answers people give with genuine interest and without judgement. Post No.: 0309 was about how we listen to learn as well as because we love. From this information we glean, we can connect their experiences with other people’s experiences in an empathic way by asking them further questions. So if someone expresses a negative bias towards immigrants, homosexual people or some other marginalised group, the canvasser could ask them to recall a time when they felt they were themselves being unfairly treated for just being different and what it felt like.
We also already know that emotive stories compel most people more than dry facts and statistics. This isn’t always ideal but it is the way it is with human beings. So share stories. They also sound less like arguments that people need to counter-argue – well if someone is telling you that they had an authentic experience, like the time they faced personal harassment or abuse, then how can we reasonably argue that they didn’t? Stories about individuals in discriminated groups are more humanising too than presenting their plight via plain collective data.
Be sincerely open-minded and they’ll more likely be sincerely open-minded in return. Make it a collaborative dialogue, and help them to come to the conclusions you want them to see by themselves – the conclusions that convince us the most are those that we come to ourselves.
In a way, this should all be obvious because probably none of us has ever been converted based on other people speaking over us, trying to belittle us, shouting at us, patronising us, telling us we’re stupid or disgraceful, telling us we’re wrong then ‘correcting’ us in an arrogant manner, or not truly listening to us! It feels offensive that someone doesn’t or can’t see the world as we do, and expressing our vexation at them may make us temporarily feel good about ourselves, but it seldom works to persuade people to finally see the world how we see it (assuming that it’s not us who needs to see the world how other people see it more!) And if that temporary feeling of release and relief is all we care about then our cause will get nowhere.
When people’s views get attacked, people naturally become defensive and they’ll therefore fight to resist by hardening their existing views even more. Defence is logically the natural reaction to being attacked. Change is not conducive when people are in a mental ‘fight or flight’ mode because minds close, become more tunnel-visioned and become essentially narrowly focused on immediate survival rather than exploring new perspectives or possibilities. So if we truly care about persuading other people then we must listen to and understand those people first. Everyone must be in a calm and receptive state. Meow.
Our political, religious and cultural worldviews are usually a major part of our personal identities, so when these views of ours get directly challenged, it feels like our very core identities are also being directly challenged. People therefore don’t like to have their values judged. Almost everyone wants to do the right thing, and be associated with groups that are doing the right thing, thus people don’t like being told they’re wrong or have sided with a side that’s doing the wrong thing – they’ll immediately generate counterarguments to defend their own honour if they’re presented with something that threatens their self-image. This is why merely ‘calling out’ people with righteous indignation by condemning those who disagree with us (via social media or elsewhere) is seldom effective. All sides do it but it’s far more effective to actually meet and engage with people who disagree with us and apply the above techniques.
Still, shifting people’s opinions is difficult. As stubborn as we think those we disagree with are, they must think we are as equally stubborn too! But we stand a far better chance of being persuasive if we apply some empathy, put in the effort to listen to and understand others first, and appeal on the basis of the other person’s values rather than our own. We might also realise that we have more in common than we think. And it’s also good for opening our own minds as well as those we engage with.
…Sometimes our aims aren’t to convince other people to believe in the same things as us as much as to achieve social harmony with those who disagree with us. We might ourselves be a member of a marginalised group and are looking for ways to reduce divisions in our society by bridging our differences.
However, in this pursuit, should we accept, downplay or gloss over the social injustices that we face from those who disagree with us and who might even oppress us? Should we accommodate views or behaviours that we find repugnant and sacrifice our ideals in order to settle on a middle ground and achieve reconciliation?
Well bridging our differences doesn’t mean that we should give up on getting the injustices we’ve faced – or especially still face – fully acknowledged and addressed. Bridging is mainly about not dehumanising other groups or reducing them to caricatures or stereotypes – it’s about recognising everyone’s shared humanity. Without all sides being seen, heard and understood – even if not agreed with – there’s no hope for a productive dialogue, never mind problem solving. Dehumanisation is what sides do to opposing sides when they’re feeling hostile towards each other, such as during war.
Listening and accepting that someone else holds a different view to us doesn’t always mean agreeing with them, or finding a common or middle ground, or even a consensus. We may never convince them, and they may never convince us, but we can understand each other’s perspectives and where these perspectives came from. This may again require temporarily suspending our judgements of people’s values. It is even more important for a member of a group who holds more power (e.g. a majority member) to understand the perspectives of a member of a group who holds less power (e.g. a minority member) than the other way around.
Bridging is about intellectual humility and modesty because absolutely no one has all of the answers or knows every truth. Indeed, many things that we believe are facts might be mistaken or just one side of the story? We might have fallen for a myth or been exposed to our own side’s propaganda? Just by being more humble and respectful despite any disagreements, we’re logically going to have more productive conversations with others than if we’re being verbally aggressive, defensive and calling names.
So it’s down to our mindset, our intrapersonal skills for questioning our own knowledge, as well as our interpersonal skills for creating positive interactions with others. And it’s down to our everyday interactions too, not just grand or one-off gestures like a social media post that’s riding a virtue-signalling trend.
Some bridges require more psychological and emotional distance to overcome to be able to cross them. So – like when trying to shift people’s opinions – don’t expect progress to be quick and don’t overlook crossing some of the smaller bridges either. In fact, it’s a challenging process and we might not get the outcome we hope for, at least as quickly as we hope for. We might get frustrated, angry and make mistakes so we need to show compassion to others, as well as to ourselves. Well any frustrations we feel would just demonstrate evidence to ourselves that we don’t personally have the answers to everything, otherwise everything would be under our control! This is okay as long as we are humble enough to recognise or learn this.
Bridging our differences can be a process that exposes us to vulnerability because there’s likely to be rejection. We might again also be persuaded to change our views in light of being open to listening to the other side(s), although this perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a risk but an opportunity. However, it can be a risk for those in low-power or discriminated groups because they really need to heal from their traumas first – it’d be counterproductive to try to forge a relationship with someone who denies you your right to exist or threatens you violently, thus not everyone should be bridging, or should be ready to commit to bridging, with the other side.
Overall, bridging our differences isn’t about coaxing or coercion, and it’s not necessarily about making compromises – it’s about expanding one’s sense of common humanity. We don’t have to necessarily abandon our current values or beliefs, yet we mustn’t dismiss the current values or beliefs of others.
Meow. In the end, whether our goal is persuading or bridging, there are more socially and emotionally effective ways of doing so.