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A 5-Step Recipe For Opening People’s Minds

Stop debating and start dialoguing.

 Wikimedia Commons
Source: Image source: Wikimedia Commons

"Those People"

We are at a crossroads. We face many important problems in our world, in our country, and in our personal lives. And if we don’t come up with solutions soon, there will be dire consequences.

We don’t know entirely how to solve these problems, but there’s one thing we do know: it would be much easier to solve these problems if it weren't for “those people.”

Who are “those people?”

If you’re a Republican it’s the Democrats. If you’re a person of faith, it’s the atheists. If you’re blue collar, it’s the investing class. If you’re the neat roommate, it’s the messy roommate. And vice versa for all of those.

We have our opinions about how life should go, and the opinions of “those people” stand in our way. The most frustrating obstacle to a better world is that there’s simply no talking to “those people”. They don’t listen. They don’t understand. They’re hard-headed and illogical.

At least I used to think so.

Like you, when I was born, I had no opinions at all. As I grew up I acquired opinions (mostly by adopting the views of those around me). Then I learned that there were people out there who had different opinions. At some point I started engaging with “those people” and sometimes found it difficult to reason with them. I came to the conclusion that there’s just no reasoning with some people.

I’m no longer so pessimistic (for the most part). And that’s because I've learned some neat techniques for opening people’s minds. But be warned: if you use these techniques, it might just open your own mind as well.

Five Skills For Opening Minds

1. Establish your common humanity.

When I’m discussing a controversial issue with someone, and start to see that we are coming at the issue from different angles, I look for an opportunity to say something like this:

“Ah, we see things differently. This is good. You know, when we were young children, we didn't believe anything one way or another about these issues. We were each brought up by adults who told us what was good and what was bad in the world. And, as we grew up, we each held on to some of what they taught us, and changed our minds about other things . . .”

By default we tend to see a person who has different views as an opponent. And we fall into a “debate” frame with them.

The above pattern sets up what communication experts call a “dialogue frame”. It highlights the similarities we have with our discussion partner. It creates a larger context in which two souls, each of which is simply trying to make as much sense of the world as it can, come together and compare notes on an important issue.

And that leads to the second skill.

2. Start with stories, not reasons.

I might continue the above pattern this way:

. . . So I’m curious, how did you come to have your current views on this subject? I’m not asking for your reasons (we’ll get to those). I’m interested in your story.”

As the other person talks, I try to imagine what it might have been like to be in their shoes as they were growing up figuring things out. I try to understand why it makes sense for them to see things the way they do.

Once I've done this, I've earned the right to tell my story. And I tell it. And I try to tell it very factually. I try not to overstate my evidence. I just try to tell a story that explains how my views got to their present form.

And guess what. I often learn that my own views aren't as well-grounded as I thought they were. Sometimes I am the one who winds up opening his mind to new possibilities. That’s a good thing. I like having more options from which to choose.

Now, if we hope for them to change their mind, sometimes more is needed. And that’s where the next skill comes in.

3. Allow your discussion partner to feel safe changing his or her mind.

If you want the other person to open their mind, you have to make them feel safe doing so. And the best way to do that, in my experience, is to secure permission for both of you to take things back.

To that end, I’ll say something like this:

“Have you ever been in a discussion, defending a point, and suddenly realized you didn't have much confidence in your own argument? But you kept arguing anyway, because you didn't want to lose the debate? I want to avoid that if I can. If we’re going to talk about this issue further, I want to feel free to take things back if they don’t hold up. And, of course, I’ll give you permission to do that, too. Does that sound good?"

I've never had anyone refuse this request.

And notice that I don’t suggest at first that THEY need permission to take things back. I begin by asking permission for myself.

With all that said, the fourth skill is where much of the work actually gets done.

4. Validate their experience, question their interpretation.

If any mind-changing is to happen we have to challenge their opinions at some point. But nothing good comes from questioning their experience. They had their experience, and it led them to where they are today. In fact, we need to understand and validate their experience so we can understand where they’re coming from, and so that they feel understood.

That said, we can (and should) offer up alternative interpretations of their experience. Suppose, for instance, we are arguing for a universal basic income in our country, and the other person opposes it. They tell us,

“That sounds like welfare. I had a neighbor who was on welfare, and had a side business where he got paid under the table. Welfare is a waste of money because people cheat the system.”

There’s no need to challenge the experience. It likely happened. There’s no need to even challenge their emotional reaction to the experience. We can probably identify with it to some degree. We might say: “yeah, it’s frustrating when people cheat the system.”

But we can question their interpretation quite gently, with something like this:

“One possibility is that, with a basic income, lots of people will just sit around playing video games or find other ways to be unproductive. Another possibility is that only a few people will do so. How can we tell which one is actually the case?”

In general the pattern is this: “One possibility is X [their interpretation], another is Y [your interpretation], how could we tell which one, if either, is true?”

This pattern neatly brings things back to a dialogue frame where the two participants are trying to work out a problem together.

A lot of the nitty-gritty work gets done at this level. For any complex issue there are dozens of interpretive issues to work out. And to some degree you have to pick your battles and save some work for further discussions.

And those further discussions are more likely to take place if you use the fifth skill:

5. Keep focused on your goal.

As I engage with others about controversial subjects, I try to keep in this lovely question in mind:

“What are we making together?”

This question comes from W. Barnett Pearce, and I've trained myself to trigger it in my mind any time I feel any tension in the discussion. It reminds me that I want to maintain the dialogue frame so something good can come out of the discussion.

What do I want from the conversation? I want to create a bridge of understanding between us. I want us both to walk away with a better understanding of the larger issue at stake. I want us to create the basis for further dialogue. I want to change their mind perhaps just a little bit. And I’m willing to learn new things as well.

When opponents understand each other they can work together. They can find win-win deals where both sides get most of what they want instead of one side getting everything (and probably winding up with less than they bargained for).

I sincerely want those things. Or at least part of me does. But there’s another, darker, more impulsive part of me that wants something else. That part of me wants the momentary pleasure of a quick dig or verbal smack-down that I imagine would bring cheers from my tribe-mates as the other person goes away with his tail between his legs.

And that’s why I have to remind myself, whenever there’s tension, to stay focused on the goal.

So, the final question is:

What’s Next?

The next time you’re in a discussion with someone about a controversial issue such as religion, politics, household chores, or dietary doctrine, try to develop and use these skills:

  1. Establish a dialogue frame by reminding yourself and your discussion partner about your common humanity.

  2. Learn their story and tell yours.

  3. Secure permission for both parties to change their mind.

  4. Validate their experience and challenge their interpretations by offering alternative possibilities.

  5. Keep your outcome in mind.

And you know what? If more and more of us stop debating and start dialoguing, humanity might just be able to solve many of its current pressing problems.

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