How to Avoid Barking Up the Wrong Tree

How to Avoid Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Some last minute help for those who will be at the Christmas dinner table with people “from the other side…”

Just got this in my inbox. I’m always looking for ways to reach out to people who may disagree with me. Here’s a note from the author of the new book, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” that’s chock full of some great ideas. I’m adding this to my Christmas list!

Don Rosenberg, Editor.

This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind: 6 Secrets From Research

If you could only tie that special someone to a chair and force them to listen. Or make them read that one thing that would finally change their stubborn mind. They’d finally see the light…

But that’s never going to happen. And even if that whole “it’s illegal to kidnap and restrain people” part wasn’t an issue, truth is, it wouldn’t work. There are no guarantees when it comes to changing people’s minds. So what does work most often?

Back in the 1970s, Portland State University psychology professor Dr. Frank Wesley, looked into why some US prisoners of war defected to North Korea during the Korean War. And it wasn’t because they were tortured. It was because they were shown kindness.

From How to Have Impossible Conversations:

His research showed that virtually all of the defectors came from a single US training camp. As part of their training, they had been taught that the North Koreans were cruel, heartless barbarians who despised the United States and single-mindedly sought its destruction. But when those POWs were shown kindness by their captors, their initial indoctrination unraveled. They became far more likely to defect than those POWs who either hadn’t been told anything about the North Koreans or had been given more neutral accounts of them.

Unexpected kindness, not restraints, changed minds.

But having a reasonable discussion these days seems impossible. The world is so increasingly polarized that “no furniture being broken” passes for a civil conversation. Everyone is so sure they’re right that they end up doing everything wrong.

We need more discussions where no one is demonized or shamed and both sides are open to changing their mind. Not only is it more pleasant, but that harsh stuff doesn’t actually work. It just makes enemies more vicious. Yes, some topics will always be controversial and things won’t always go smoothly, but they don’t have to go badly.

Now it would be great if someone had taken the time to pull all the insights from peer-reviewed research, professional negotiations, cult exiting and applied epistemology into one book… Oh wait, someone has.

Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay have written an excellent book titled How to Have Impossible Conversations. It would definitely make my “Best of 2019” list, right behind David Epstein’s Range. Frankly, this book taught me a great deal about the errors I personally make while verbally beating the hell out of people kindly sharing information. It’s short but packed with useful information and fresh ideas.

First we’re gonna quickly cover a lot of fundamentals so we can get to the cool new toys. This first section is gonna be a bit of lightning round. Some of it may sound obvious but if you neglect it, none of the subsequent ideas will work.

Let’s get to it…

Be A Partner, Not An Adversary

Most of us go into a conversation with an unconscious “war metaphor” in our heads: someone wins and someone loses. Zero sum. But that rarely convinces anyone of anything. We need to shift our goal from winning to understanding. How does that lead to people changing their minds? To quickly summarize the grand strategy here:

Be nice and respectful. Listen. Understand. Instill doubt.

You need rapport. That’s just a fancy way of saying “be nice.” Be respectful. If you’re not nice, all the evidence in the world won’t help you. Find common ground. Don’t call the other person out except for the most extreme infractions. And always give people the opportunity to be wrong safely and with respect. Saying “I told you so” or shaming someone is a “take no prisoners” attitude. And what do people do when they think you “take no prisoners”? They don’t surrender – they fight to the death.

You can’t control their behavior, only yours.  Just because they behave badly doesn’t mean you doing the same will make this any better. Model the behavior you’d like to see in them. It’s often contagious — and even if it’s not, your behavior getting worse is certainly not going to help.

Focus on listening. And make sure they know you’re listening. You can say a simple “I hear you” to acknowledge their words without necessarily agreeing with them. Make “How in the world could anyone believe that?” a question you ask yourself curiously, not a rhetorical question you ask yourself while shaking your head.

And a big, big issue these days is intentions. Research shows you probably assume theirs are far worse than they really are. Exceedingly few people’s primary goal is hurting others. People may have bad evidence, poor reasoning or different (but still noble) values, but they’re rarely evil. You know what it feels like when someone assumes you’re a horrible person or incorrigibly stupid. You instantly dislike them and they have a zero-point-zero chance of changing your mind. Help others see your side and by the same token, do your best to see where they’re coming from. Remember: you could both be wrong.

It’s okay to end a conversation. Things really go south when you forget this is an option. Don’t lose a friendship. And the single most effective way to have productive arguments on Twitter or Facebook is by not having arguments on Twitter or Facebook.

Remember, changing positions on deeply held values can take time. It rarely happens with a sudden “Eureka!” moment. Even if you do everything right, most likely you’re not going to convince them…

They’re going to slowly convince themselves.

(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Okay, our EpiPen infusion of the basics is complete. First steps, how do we send in the shock troops… Whoops. That’s a war metaphor. Bad. Okay, how do we send in the Wal-Mart greeters?

1) Use Rapoport’s Rules

“You don’t get it.” The most common munition used early on in war metaphor conversations. How much better would your conversations go if you could take that issue off the table, all the while building rapport and showing the other side you’re intellectually honest and fair?

So, early on, after they initially throw a bunch of their reasoning at you, don’t throw your position back at them. Instead, respond by following Rapoport’s Rules.

From How to Have Impossible Conversations:

1. 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. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. And only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

How much more positively would you respond if someone did that? In this era of hostile polarization I fear I would immediately and uncontrollably hug them.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Ah, so now it must be time to do like this blog always does and hit them with unquestionable facts and data beyond reproach to show them the error of their ways!

Ummmmmm, sadly, no…

2) Facts Are The Enemy

People aren’t just going to hear your facts and suddenly have a “Road to Damascus” moment. Merely delivering info rarely changes minds. That’s for courtroom dramas. You don’t hear one statistic and suddenly flip sides and neither will they. In fact, quite the opposite: facts are like punches – they usually cause the other side to put their hands up and block whatever you send their way next.

Again: you don’t convince people. People convince themselves. Studies done as far back as the 1940’s by Kurt Lewin showed that lectures about why people should change their behavior were effective a measly 3% of the time. But when people self-generated reasons for the same activity, behavior change occurred  37% of the time. People reject ideas they are given and act on ideas they feel they came up with themselves.

Yes, longtime readers, this is very ironic coming from a blog that prides itself on presenting convincing facts and statistics. Hold on a sec, the tears are making it hard for me to see the screen…

(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)

Don’t deliver facts. The more effective strategy is to instill doubt and let them convince themselves. But how do we start doing that?

3) Use The “Unread Library Effect”

How does your phone work? Yeah, I know it has to do with computers and radio waves — but how do computers and radio waves work? Unless you have a degree in electrical engineering there’s only one honest, bedrock answer here:

You don’t know.

You don’t really know how the vast majority of stuff works. (Please explain “electricity” to me. The closest any of us can get is “the magic zappy stuff that makes things go.”) It’s like the knowledge we have is a bunch of borrowed books from a trustworthy library — books we never bothered to read. We’re all a lot more certain about most of what we know than we have any right to be.

That means how we know what we know and why we believe what we believe are actually far more fragile than we think and instill far more doubt than debating the accuracy of the facts themselves.

Leveraging the unread library effect means you encourage the other person to talk and by politely asking them questions, allow them to see their own ignorance. Instead of you battering them with facts, they lead themselves into doubt. Socrates would be proud. At the very least it often serves to moderate extreme beliefs because it’s humbling to realize you can’t really explain what your beliefs are based on. And it reduces hostility because you don’t have to throw those backfiring facts at them; you just ask sincere questions.

From How to Have Impossible Conversations:

Explicitly invite explanations, ask for specifics, follow up with pointed questions that revolve around soliciting how someone knows the details, and continue to openly admit your own ignorance. In many conversations, the more ignorance you admit, the more readily your partner in the conversation will step in with an explanation to help you understand. And the more they attempt to explain, the more likely they are to realize the limits of their own knowledge… this strategy not only helps moderate strong views, it models openness, willingness to admit ignorance, and readiness to revise beliefs.

For example, partisans on both sides of the aisle support many government policies they barely understand. Has this policy actually been shown to work before? What are viable alternatives? How much would it cost? What are the potential downsides? How would it be rolled out? Most people go on instinct, not evidence, but this rarely stops them from being shrill and strident.

(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)

The unread library effect can help people moderate their views but in the current conversational war zone extreme statements are all too common. People take positions that are so far off the wall that it’s a herculean task to find any sort of common ground. And this turns things into an endless back and forth of “yes, it is” / “no, it isn’t.”

How do you bring extreme positions down to earth?

4) Use Scales

Use numerical scales to draw comparisons and bring people back to reality.

THEM: “Our government is tyrannical!”
YOU: “If Stalin’s Russia was a 9 out of 10 in governmental tyranny, where’s our country right now?”

If the other person at least falls into the category of “borderline sane and may go on to live a semi-normal life” they will back off a bit and gain some perspective. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong — but you’re providing context that will better ground extreme beliefs.

You can also leverage scales to learn their pre-existing doubts, which you can later add fuel to.

YOU: “On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being no confidence and 10 being absolute confidence, how confident are you that belief is true?”
THEM: “I’m at an 8.”
YOU: “Just out of curiosity, why didn’t you say 9?”

Now they’ll start making a case against their own beliefs, a case that they find at least somewhat compelling. Smile. They’re handing you a treasure map.

(To learn the 3 secrets neuroscience says will make you more emotionally intelligent, click here.)

Okay, now we’re cooking. But what’s the single most powerful method for getting people to give the other side an honest and fair look?

5) Use Disconfirmation

That means asking them a variation on:

“Under what conditions could your belief be false?”

Reasonable, intellectually honest people (all two of them left on this planet) will concede that they could be wrong and will respond with a solid hint as to what angle might convince them. Ask questions to clarify specific conditions under which they might reconsider their stance: “So if the results of that study you’re referencing couldn’t be replicated you’d be open to changing your mind?”

But, of course, not everybody is going to play fair. They can reply, “Absolutely nothing would convince me I’m wrong!” But now they’re saying their position is Immutable Truth™, which, for the vast majority of issues, is like saying, “I hereby publicly admit to being an obsessed zealot.

So, to qualify for a Sanity Membership Card, many will respond with something, but something that is wildly implausible: “If you can bring PERSON A back from the dead to say he was wrong about B, then I’d stop believing. How about that?!” This is frustrating – but it’s also a tacit admission that they know the evidence doesn’t justify their beliefs. They’re basically admitting to being insincere.

If you want to keep pursuing the point, you can address the issue of why the bar is so uniquely high for this topic and ask a question regarding a more reasonable challenge: “I’m having trouble understanding. Do you use that reasoning process for anything else, or just X? Why do you think your standard for disconfirmation for this is so much higher than for other things? I’m wondering why some simpler issue, like why after all this time a dead Bigfoot has never been found, isn’t good enough to cast some doubt on your belief in Sasquatch?”

(To learn more about how to make friends as an adult, click here.)

If you’ve done a good job with rapport, the above methods will get you pretty far with most people – but it’s no guarantee. Some will just staunchly say that nothing will change their minds. Others, no matter how polite or diplomatic you are, will claim to be morally offended by a question (“You’re a heretic/bigot/anarchist!”) allowing them to relieve the cognitive dissonance by changing the subject.

What do you do when you’re dealing with the most extreme extremists?

6) Serious Beliefs Are About Values And Identity

If you thought facts were useless before, they’re doubly useless here. The most stubbornly held beliefs often have nothing to do with the truth. They don’t even know which subway stop the truth is on. They’re all about values and identity. And you know what neuroscience research says happens in people’s brains when you challenge their identity beliefs?

One interpretation of these activations in the context of our study is that these structures are signaling threats to deeply held beliefs in the same way they might signal threats to physical safety.

As far as his brain is concerned, you might as well be brandishing an axe when you question Uncle Fred’s politics at the holiday dinner table. Tread lightly.

If you keep your rapport game strong and have enough patience to fill an Amazon warehouse, it is possible to continue such a conversation. How? With the values version of the Unread Library Effect. People have very strong feelings about moral issues but they’re usually only vaguely aware of the process that got them there.

So change the subject from the accuracy of their beliefs to how they know their beliefs are true and how their beliefs contribute to their sense of personal identity. Don’t dispute whether Bigfoot is real; question how they know Bigfoot is real: “These beliefs seem really important to you. What are you basing them on?”

Induce doubt by addressing whether their reasoning process is in line with their conclusions: “Would every reasonable person draw the same conclusion?” If they say yes: “I’m a sincere, reasonable person and I’m having trouble drawing the same conclusion. How do I get there?”

Use disconfirmation questions related to morality and their vision of a good person: “Would you be a good person if you didn’t hold this belief? Who are some examples of people who don’t hold that belief who are good people?”

This is not a killshot. Again, a “Eureka!” moment is unrealistic. You can (nicely) expose contradictions in their reasoning and (diplomatically) loosen the connection between their big picture values (which you may agree with) and their specific beliefs (which you most certainly don’t). But how they reconcile it all is, in the end, up to them.

That said, executed properly, this angle will get you a lot farther than endless shouting and the declaration of blood feuds. You may notice a shift in their perspective over time. And if you provoke curiosity on their part about alternate perspectives, that’s a very good sign…

(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s tips for getting people to like you, click here.)

Okay, time to round it all up — and learn the final thing you should definitely do when nothing else works…

Sum Up

This is how to change people’s minds:

  • Be a partner, not an adversary: If you’re trying to win, you’re going to lose. The best approach is: Be nice and respectful. Listen. Understand. Instill doubt. (I refuse to change my mind about this.)
  • Use Rapoport’s rules: They can seem awkward but they reduce conflict better than Valium.
  • Facts are the enemy: Unless we’re talking about the savvy, attractive people who read this blog, yes, facts are the enemy.
  • Use the “Unread Library Effect”: Let them talk. Ask questions. Let them expose their ignorance. Do not cheer when that happens.
  • Use scales: Bring extreme statements down to earth with numbered comparisons. And unless they’re certain at a level 10, they’ll mention their own doubts which can aid your cause.
  • Use disconfirmation: “Eric, under what conditions would disconfirmation not be effective?”
  • Serious beliefs are about values and identity: Don’t attack what they believe, focus on the validity of their reasoning process and whether that identity is the only way to be a good person.

If absolutely nothing else works, they might just be a totally unreachable zealot. Or it could be that…

You’re the zealot. And if you are unwilling to give any serious consideration to this possibility, that’s a big red flag. Nobody thinks they’re the problem – and that’s the problem. After all, you’re the one reading articles about how to change people’s minds, aren’t you? (Yes, I plead guilty to being an accomplice.)

It’s just a possibility to consider, but if you’re serious about having fewer arguments to the death, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re really a victim and not Patient Zero. So what do you do if you think you might be Typhoid Mary?

Consider the beliefs you usually argue about. Now ask yourself disconfirmation questions. Write down the answers. Show them to a friend who has a different perspective than you on the topic. Does your pal feel those responses pass the implausibility sniff test?

If you have zero friends with different perspectives, um, that’s not a good sign. And if you tend to consider anyone with opposite views to be a morally repugnant subhuman pig-man, well, I think you have the answer as to whether you’re an ideologue.

Changing other people’s minds is extremely hard; changing your own can be even harder.

But if you’re up the task, it’s far, far more rewarding.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a 10 on that one.


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