Most of our attempts to convince people to back a social or political point of view are wasted effort.
I was recently interviewed by a radio station on "Changing People's Minds." The audience was home schooling parents; home schooling is an increasingly mainstream educational option and many homeschoolers are outperforming even their top public and private school peers, but home schooling also carries with it some challenges in terms of ideological insularity. As it happens, home schoolers are less and less unique in that respect.
We had a great chat about how to persuade people of differing viewpoints; I hope I was able to do some good!
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"You need to understand your audience as people and love them as people, not as projects to be fixed or enemies to be vanquished."
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Do you want to talk about something controversial without your listeners tuning you out? Brian Brown is here to help. Listen to his tips on today’s Home School Heartbeat.
Mike Smith: We’re joined today by Brian Brown. He’s the founder and CEO of Narrator, a consulting firm that helps nonprofit organizations with strategy, communications, and fundraising. Brian, welcome to the program!
Brian Brown: My pleasure! Thanks for including me.
Mike: Brian, it can be hard to discuss controversial social issues—especially when people disagree. Why do we need to really be able to talk winsomely about these issues?
Brian: I think people need to be able to talk winsomely about anything important. One of the big challenges of our current culture is that we’re really segregated by our ideology. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who hold strong liberal views or strong conservative views has doubled in the last two decades—as has the percentage of each of those groups who actually think the other group is actively trying to harm the country.
We spend most of our time, in terms of engaging political issues, reading and watching sources of news and ideas that reinforce that notion that the other guys are the bad guys. And we’re less and less likely to have friends who disagree with us. So this means the minute that you open your mouth about something politically controversial, anybody that you actually need to convince has already figured out that you fit into the “bad guy” box. Their subconscious is getting itself all worked up to fire back at you.
People who can overcome that initial subconscious response, I think are really our only hope for sensible policies and workable compromises, or for that matter even functioning communities.
Mike: Brian, how can we talk about these controversial issues without alienating those who disagree with us?
Brian: I think we need to give people an opportunity to be the good guys. I’ve talked before about the importance of that first minute that people have in conversation while their prejudices are formed. Prejudices aren’t necessarily bad things—our brains assemble our memories of relevant experiences into narratives that tell us not to touch that hot stove, or not to go out on a date with that guy we saw screaming at his mom yesterday. We don’t have to have those experiences over and over in order to learn them because we have prejudices.
So a huge factor in having any kind of productive conversation where prejudice is working against you is being able to instantly appeal to emotions that help people build new narratives, new prejudices, rather than falling into the ones they’ve already got.
One example that comes to mind: People have a lot of political biases surrounding redefining marriage, but not a lot surrounding the needs of children. So there are organizations like the Center for Bioethics and Culture that have made enormous headway building bipartisan coalitions around the notion that children have rights and, for example, deserve to know both of their biological parents. They’re thinking in terms of the children’s perspective rather than the parents’, and they’ve got people on both sides of other arguments coming together on it.
Mike: Brian, how can we talk to someone who has already made up their mind about something? Can we really get them to hear us out?
Brian: Yes, I think so, because the human brain is always learning. But we have to provide frameworks that help other people to understand the world outside of the box that they’re used to using to think about it. When I have experiences or talk to people that give me a little bit of a different perspective on things—not one that necessarily goes against my values, but one that makes me see them slightly differently, maybe by putting two of my values in tension with each other—my perspective gets shifted.
So for example, I live in Colorado Springs, where many people equate taxes with government and government with evil. So taxes hardly ever get raised. Well, one recent exception to this was the tax increase to pay for police-related expenses. Conservatives around here love and appreciate men and women in uniform. So the folks arguing for the tax increase said, “Hey, we don’t like taxes either! But it’s for the people in uniform.” People were forced to decide which mattered more to them: hating taxes, or supporting the troops, so to speak, which forced them to actually think rather than take the knee-jerk reaction. (The initiative passed, for the record.)
A couple of mistakes to avoid on this point. One is appealing to values that people don’t share. And another is treating life like a battlefield, where we’re juiced up to go to a war of words if we ever meet a real live liberal. When a person is the embodiment of evil to you rather than a unique person, he probably doesn’t appreciate being pigeonholed. You’ve really already lost.
Mike: Brian, many conversations today end up happening on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. How do we have a good conversation on the internet?
Brian: You don’t! I would say, never have an important conversation when you can’t see the other person’s face. You miss too many social cues, and you feel too insulated from the potential consequences of your words.
What can happen online, though, is a cumulative shaping of people’s perceptions and values. Because on the internet, people can curate their own environment. They can read sources of information that are customized so that they never have to feel uncomfortable. On Facebook, for example, I can block or remove from my newsfeed anybody who posts things that don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy.
This has a huge impact on my perception of reality. If twenty of my Facebook friends all put up a graphic that says, “John Connor is the best Republican candidate for president,” and I see it again and again from people I know and respect, it makes me think there must be some truth to it.
So there are three things that people can do to be a positive force on social networks. One is to stay friends with people who disagree with you. Another is to keep connecting with those people on levels of shared interests and enthusiasm. And the third is, instead of saying things designed to blast your opinions out into the stratosphere, work in small thoughtful things from time to time that communicate your values but also take into account the values of those diverse friends. Because you’re creating a social environment where people are more likely to recognize good ideas for good ideas, rather than just associating them with loudmouths and weirdos, which is how they’ll otherwise see it.
Mike: Brian, how can homeschooling parents teach their children to talk persuasively about these difficult topics?
Brian: I think homeschoolers have one of the biggest challenges when it comes to that problem of knowing people who aren’t like them. Some of the ones that I’ve known have withdrawn not only from public schools but largely from the community as a whole. On top of that, because homeschooling parents tend to care about their children very deeply, they’re often among the most protective when it comes to movies and TV and literature.
I’m not about to pretend there aren’t negative influences out there. But in order to talk persuasively about difficult topics, you need to understand your audience as people and love them as people, not as projects to be fixed or enemies to be vanquished. And real-life interaction and engaging rich stories are the two best ways I know of to develop your ability to do that.
Mike: Do you have any resources that you would recommend for us?
Brian: Yeah! Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler wrote a great book called Connected. It came out a couple years ago. And on the front of building up your imagination—your ability to wrestle with difficult things that maybe don’t rub you the right way.
And I think for some parents I’ve known, the best exercise I could imagine would be to read Chaucer and try to come to grips with how this thing filled with raunchy humor is considered a masterpiece of Christian literature. That’s an odd thing to say. But thinking about those kinds of questions I think are very, very helpful in terms of coming to grips with people who are not like us.
Mike: Brian, thank you so much for joining us. Your advice will help us be gracious and charitable, even in difficult conversations. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.