In part one of this series we discussed why people may be reluctant to accept ideas that are supported by scientific consensus and why scientific communication may be failing to convince people to accept these theories. We established that providing more information is not necessarily the best approach to changing minds. Here we would like to suggest a few alterations for how we discuss contentious topics in order to better engender openness to change of view.

Perhaps the most important approach to improving the possibility of changing someone’s mind is having an empathetic conversation. Listen to what the other person has to say. Even if you disagree with their views, do not disrespect them or place your views above theirs. Ask sincere questions. It is crucial that you know who your audience is and why they think what they do. In fact, asking someone to give a thorough explanation of their viewpoint may actually cause them to soften their stance and be more receptive to other’s opinions (Psychological Science).

Once you understand the motivations behind someone’s views, try some of the following approaches to convince them of an alternative viewpoint. We provide some examples of how you might implement these techniques in a conversation.

Deep Canvassing: Ask specific questions about how the topic directly affects them, or if it doesn’t, how their experiences allow them to empathize with another (“perspective taking”); this can evoke emotional responses to the topic, which can be more powerful than information-driven responses. Avoid hypotheticals – these only distance the individual from the topic. By asking questions you are making someone spend energy thinking (“active processing”), which increases the probability that they will alter their opinion (NY Times).

  • Conservation: Did you ever swim in local waters when you were a kid? How did you feel? Would you want your children to have the same opportunities?
  • Anthropogenic climate change: Do you have asthma or do you know anyone with asthma? How does it feel when you’re in a smoky room or behind a car with an exhaust plume? Do you carry an inhaler around as insurance some of the time? Would you want to carry it all the time-or have to wear a mask? How do you feel when people don’t respect that what they are doing makes it harder for you to breathe?
moral_frameworks_2.png
Graphic 1: Sliding-scale representation of the relative importance of different moral values to each political group 

Moral Reframing: Liberals and conservatives are split not only politically but also morally (see Graphic 1 above) (The Atlantic). This results in a moral empathy gap that prevents us from comprehending and fluently thinking through moral worldviews that are different than our own. It may be tempting to make an argument based on what you value but it will be much more convincing if you reframe your arguments based on what your conversation partner values.

  • Conservation: A liberal may be tempted to say: “We should stop destroying our environment”, but a conservative may be more open to: “It is our patriotic duty to protect our lands”
  • Anthropogenic climate change: A liberal may say, “It’s unfair that most greenhouse gases are produced by developed nations but that developing nations bear the cost”, but a conservative may be more open to “As a policy leader among nations the US should prevent nations from cheating the economic costs of greenhouse gases”

Overcoming the Backfire Effect: This can seem impossible at times, especially with beliefs that comprise core components of a person’s worldview or identity, because existing beliefs can take precedence over updated knowledge. When presented with evidence that is very (versus mildly) incongruent with an existing viewpoint, some people may reach an “affective tipping point,” when they feel less positive about their own opinion (but don’t necessarily change their mind) (Political Psychology). Also, pictures or graphs are more likely to correct a misperception than text (Washington Monthly). Overall, when it comes to evidence-based persuasion, quality rules over quantity. Instead of presenting multiple lines of evidence, choose one that you think is most incongruent with your conversation partner’s belief.

  • For someone who thinks that expensive measures to address climate change are detrimental to Americans: “There are now 31 towns in America that have to be relocated (NY Times). There are already climate change refugees in the US, and their numbers are growing.”
  • For people who think that only fringe environmentalists accept anthropogenic climate change: “The Department of Defense considers climate change a threat to national security and funds a lot of climate research (ProPublica).”
  • For people that feel nothing can be done and we might as well not try to change: “We’ve been successful at averting and reversing environmental disasters before, but only if everyone agrees to mutual regulations. Remember the depletion of the ozone layer? We have successfully avoided and reversed that trend by mutually restricting CFCs (UN Environment). We can do the same with greenhouse gases.” Read a couple more environmental success stories here.

In general, try to use more positive language and avoid triggering controversial terms. Be careful with your word choice; for example, say “scientists accept” rather than “scientists believe”.

  • Choose to say “energy innovations” rather than “alternative energies” and “protections” in lieu of “regulations”.
  • In the midwest, people often talk about soil erosion and changing rainfall patterns without using the phrase “climate change” (NY Times).

Here are some additional strategies for climate change discussions that motivate action (Per Espen Stoknes).

  • Social: Use the power of social networks and peer pressure to praise those that are taking action.
  • Simple: Make everyday life decisions to live and shop green easier by increasing the availability and visibility of the climate option.
  • Supportive: Avoid doomsday messages, and frame climate as a health and risk-management issue, not one of sacrifice.
  • Stories: Turn the narrative into one of a successful entrepreneurial story, such as “we’re finding new ways for a growing and smart technology society to have better livelihoods”.
  • Signals: Focus on creating new signals and indicators that feel personal to how an individual is contributing on short time scales (e.g., water-use meters), rather than using global indicators that feel distant.

Keep in mind that it is rare to change someone’s mind — only one in ten are changed in the best case scenario (Science). Some people are impossible to reach, so don’t waste your time on them. If you are just beginning to have these empathetic conversations, keep your end goals attainable. Early goals include learning the motivation behind someone’s beliefs or sharing your own beliefs without talking down to the other person. Treat every conversation as a learning opportunity; you’ll come away with a better understanding of how views contrary to your own are motivated, and how your own values and identity inform your ideas. Once you become more versed in the above techniques you will find that people are more open to your views.

Rebecca Tarvin, Lauren Castro, Julia York, and Katie Lyons contributed to this post, which is the second in a four-part series called How to Deal with Reluctant Audiences. You can read part one, “Why More Information Isn’t Enough” here.


Resources

Many of the ideas and information for this series of posts came from the You Are Not So Smart podcast. For this post see episodes 80 (Deep Canvassing), 88 (Moral Arguments), 86 (Change My View), 81 (The Climate Paradox), and 93-95 (The Backfire Effect).

For additional resources see:

Updated at 10:00pm on 21 March 2017: graphic was altered to include the words “avoiding” and “protecting” for clarity.

 

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5 thoughts on “How to Deal with Reluctant Audiences, Part 2: Having Empathetic Conversations

  1. Keep in mind that it is rare to change someone’s mind — only one in ten are changed in the best case scenario (Science). Some people are impossible to reach, so don’t waste your time on them. If you are just beginning to have these empathetic conversations, keep your end goals attainable. Early goals include learning the motivation behind someone’s beliefs or sharing your own beliefs without talking down to the other person. Treat every conversation as a learning opportunity; you’ll come away with a better understanding of how views contrary to your own are motivated, and how your own values and identity inform your ideas. Once you become more versed in the above techniques you will find that people are more open to your views.

    Good post, I will avoid triggering language. I’ve noticed many people are impossible to change, they like their view and are stuck with it due to ego or stubborness. And speaking in terms of their values/morals. Have you seen the ted talk Jonathon Haidt gave? should check it out, its great.
    Was similar to yours and helped me understand how to approach political discussions! Recently I think I’m getting through to friends on my points/views! Important to not approach conversations with a “Im right, you’re wrong” attitude because it makes them defensive sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there – thanks for the comment and for reading our blog. Doing all of the research for these posts I’ve learned a lot about how to best communicate and I have certainly changed the way that I try to have difficult conversations. I haven’t seen the Ted talk you mention but I heard of his book. We’ll have to watch it.

      As for people not wanting to change their minds… I think there are a lot of people like that on both sides, many of whom take a “righteous attitude” without even realizing it. If everyone starts having better conversations, and if we keep being persistent, this could change. But there will always be some people that are out of reach.

      I definitely agree with you that a huge part (and easy change) of having these conversations is to give everyone’s view the same weight. Have you been listening to the new NPR radio show Indivisible? It’s really good at leveling the conversation on these difficult topics.

      Here’s to more civil discourse!
      Becca

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      1. Of course, yeah understanding psychology is very important if you want to change people’s minds. In debates and discourse, I used to be guilty of going on monologues for like 30 seconds, which is an ineffective tactic as you mentioned because questions are better as they force them to reflect and process. Yes, and you mentioned empathy and avoid condescending/righteous attitudes. It is true some people are righteous by default, I’ve seen it first hand and it makes it difficult to communicate with them. Very infuriating when someone is condescending but misled or misinformed about something.
        Haidt talks about trying to surpass the moral divide between liberals and conservatives. Avoiding the “Team” mentality that is part of our tribal instincts, and trying to understand the other sides reasons&arguments is very important to changing minds. It’s a precarious situation when half of the country won’t speak to the other half, because each side thinks the other is idiotic.

        No, I have not heard Indivisible. I’ll have to check it out!
        Daniel

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