8 ways to communicate with people who don’t want to listen

People are not idealised scientists weighing all the evidence to come to a conclusion. The list of biases we have boggles the mind — besides sheer number also once you see how strong they are. Nevertheless, we constantly want to communicate with people coming from a totally different perspective, usually to sway them, and even getting them to see our perspectives in the first place would be good. The biases make this difficult. Even if you are trying, it’s hard to actually understand someone not sharing your basic assumptions through all of you own bias. It’s even harder trying to get through to people who aren’t even trying, just convinced that they’re right and you’re wrong. Yet, this is actually important sometimes. There’s a lot of pointless bickering and competitive insulting that should just stop, but at other times, there are important issues to be decided, or people would need to understand each other to get along. So how do you get through to someone?

I don’t know.

It’s a question I want to answer, but I still feel pretty daunted in face of the challenge. However, I have managed to gather some tidbits from other writers that seem plausible; individual tricks, as it were, that can probably help in some cases. Here’s a list of them and the articles they come from. Some points are long and some are short.

1. Build respect, admit when you’re wrong

From an article called “How to want to change your mind”:

Acknowledging you’re wrong seems less distasteful when you consider the long-term benefits: If people learn that you’re willing to concede a point if it’s warranted, then on those occasions when you don’t concede, they’ll be more likely to take your objections seriously rather than dismissing them as obstinacy. So I try to think of conceding a point as an investment in my future power to convince people of things.

This isn’t a tactic you can easily use within a single conversation, but if you can manage to build positive relationships with the other party, even across ideological lines, you may thereby persuade them to actually listen to you and take you seriously later, and expand their horizons through seeing your view makes some sense.

Of course, this is not a trick to do by faking, and we should be both respectful and open to admitting our own mistakes anyway. I’m just writing this particular article from the point of view of persuasion and communicating a specific message.

2. Bring the evidence with you, move the discussion to it

Creationists, in the more specific sense of religious fundamentalists who are opposed to biological evolution, are certainly a group not likely to want to listen to the opposite side. They’re infamous for ignoring (and lying about) scientific evidence. Yet, according to this article, Professor Neil Shubin has managed to make some headway by using the clearly “transitional” fossil of the Tiktaalik, a fish with the beginnings of legs:

Having the fossil to show, says Shubin, changes the entire nature of the discussion. “It’s about the data, it’s about the evidence, it’s about the discovery,” he says. “It’s about, ‘How do you date those rocks, how do you compare that creature to another creature?’ Well, if we do that, we kind of win, because what it means is it changes the conversation in a way where it’s now about evidence,” he continues. “You’re not going to change everybody’s mind, but you’re going to affect a few, most definitely. …”

It seems that this fossil is just the right kind of evidence to bring the conversation to the right point. There are a million things that get confused in a discussion like this and that mess it up. It’s sensible to discuss only the evidence (and also, to discuss the evidence at all in the first place). Also, there’s a fossil right there and it’s being presented by an expert, and it’s clearly transitional. So much for distracting claims like “Scientists don’t believe in evolution,” “There’s no real evidence” and “There are no transitional forms.” This particular fossil is even an example of a prediction made based on the theory of evolution, striking at another claim. Perhaps the fossil (or its cast) is also an interesting object that draws attention.

I don’t know what kind of generalised advice I can derive from this example. Perhaps to present evidence of the right sort and go to the real point. It doesn’t have to mean bringing props, hopefully.

3. Show, don’t tell

In this post, an ex-fundamentalist recounts how going to college changed her opinions. One reason was this:

My parents believe that college brainwashed me. To be perfectly honest, when I started changing my views I spent many hours very worried that I was being brainwashed, simply because I had been taught that that is what college professors would try to do. But this wasn’t the case. My professors never told me what to believe; rather, they gave me information and let me do what I saw fit with it. There was no enforced dogma except critical thinking and open exploration of evidence and information. My professors urged me to think, not to think the way they thought. They taught me how to think, not what to think. They didn’t brainwash me, they opened my mind.

The truth has its own power, as does logic and consistency. To mix some metaphors, a lie may get around the world before the truth has got its boots on, but the truth is also like the skilled hunter, who does not chase after its prey but waits. If something really makes sense, it will do so to thinking people (sometimes…) if they’re just given all the information. The previous writer’s parents would have probably said that applies to their beliefs as well, but they’d only given her their side of it. Anyway, it’s also possible that forcing conclusions on someone who believes differently to begin with might be met with resistance unlike letting them figure it out by themselves.

The article also mentions a couple of other related things that help changing minds but may not work so well as advice for a conversation: the author speaks of coming to understand different people when meeting them, and to view things differently simply when given more information about them — and the real versions instead of the straw men.

4. Make it relatable for them, not accusatory

The next article I’m referring to also has a list, so it’s easier to quote the problem than the solution(s):

I once published a piece about white privilege, and my white friend’s dad lost it. He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”

My friend replied, “Working, why?” My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.

“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged. Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your a*s to feed your family?”

“Are you kidding me?!? Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”

And so the story goes.

This kind of problem has to do with telling people to take others into account in something they didn’t realise was harmful, whether they need to stop doing something or just become more aware. Typically it has to do with privilege in some form: hidden relations of power that provide an advantage to some people over others. Because they’re hidden, ambient, taken for granted and only directly experienced by those disadvantaged by them, people may not know what the heck you’re talking about. Because they involve someone benefiting at someone else’s expense, talking about them sounds accusatory. Both things put together, it sounds like an absurd accusation. Add the fact that the privileged people have both real and imaginary problems of their own, and it sounds like you’re kicking them while they’re down for absurd reasons. And there’s more, but let’s stop here.

The author of the article recommends making the idea relatable by pointing to ways in which the person you’re talking to is not privileged, and listening to and validating their complaints related to this. In the above example, the people are acting as it they assume it’s about wealth privilege, which they clearly don’t have. You shouldn’t deny the disprivileges that apply to the person you’re talking to, and you should make it clear that you don’t.

Another thing from the article, which may apply to other kinds of issues as well, is stressing how privilege hurts everyone. (I’m not going into detail, see the article itself.)

Another universal point (related to points 4–6 in the article) is to navigate around people’s natural reaction to feel that they are being accused of something, and, further, that it’s they rather than their action. People are defensive about their egos when criticised, but the point should be to criticise their actions and/or advice them in how to not do the unintentionally bad thing.

5. Identify their viewpoint, get to the core of the issue

The next article I’m referring to looks a little weird, as it’s written by “Film Crit Hulk”, who apparently writes intellectual text with a thin pretense of writing as the Hulk. I haven’t been reading their articles otherwise, but this one is certainly very thoughtful and insightful. Its main concern is “Gamergate”, an amorphous internet movement that started from an immature man writing a text with public accusations against his ex that was seized upon by some people to make nonsense accusations about corruption in gaming journalism and, in practice, harassing women with online visibility. The article is also about the writer’s desperation in being unable to use normal ways of communicating with people who disagree to deal with the people who sincerely believe Gamergate is about something good. This is what he says can normally be done:

THROUGHOUT THE YEARS HULK’S HAD FRANK DISCUSSIONS WITH ERUDITE FILM SCHOLARS, KIND COLLEAGUES, BRILLIANT ARTISTS, ARTISTS WHO HAVE FELT WRONGED, ARTISTS WHO HAVE FELT RIGHTED, AND OF COURSE YOU HAVE YOUR FLIPPANT TEENS, AGGRESSIVE AXE-GRINDERS, CONFUSED ADOLESCENTS, BRILLIANT PRECOCIOUS CHILDREN, MEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVISTS AND THERE WAS EVEN THAT NICE LITTLE BLIP WITH STORMFRONT. THE THING TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT ALL OF THESE CONVERSATIONS IS THAT EVERYONE WAS COMING INTO THEM WITH A SPECIFIC VIEWPOINT. AND WHEN YOU UNDERSTAND THE VIEWPOINT OF THE OTHER PERSON, EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE, YOU CAN STILL GET TO THE ROOT OF THE DISAGREEMENT AND CORRECTLY IDENTIFY HOW IT IS THAT YOU’RE SEEING THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY.

(At this point — all this is in section 3 — the writer explains about how people believe their emotional truths instead of the evidence. That’s well worth reading if you wish to understand what causes the difficulties, but this article is about the solutions, so I’ll skip ahead to where he continues about those.)

[…] ESTABLISHED FACTS GO OUT THE WINDOW PRETTY QUICKLY WHEN PEOPLE FIND THEMSELVES ON OPPOSING SIDES OF A DISCUSSION. THE TRUTH IS THAT YOU HAVE TO GO BEYOND THAT. YOU HAVE TO REACH DOWN AND TALK TO PEOPLE AND HAVE A REAL CONVERSATION. BECAUSE, REGARDLESS OF WHAT SOME WANT TO BELIEVE, EACH AND EVERY CONVERSATION WORKS AT THE NEXUS OF LOGIC, FACT AND EMOTION. A KID WHO LOVES PROFESSOR HENDERSON IS MORE LIKELY TO BELIEVE A FACTUAL STATEMENT FROM HIM AND A KID WHO HATES PROFESSOR HENDERSON IS LESS LIKELY TO. THIS IS UNDENIABLE. SO IT IS ONLY WHEN ALL THREE FACETS – LOGIC, FACT AND EMOTION -ARE IN TUNE, THEN WE CAN ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND ONE ANOTHER AND SOMEHOW, SOME WAY COME TO A KIND OF MUTUAL CATHARSIS.

SO PLEASE UNDERSTAND IT’S NOT “SEEING BOTH SIDES.” IT’S ABOUT COMMUNICATING WITH BOTH SIDES TO EMPHASIZE THE THING THAT HULK REALLY AND TRULY SEES AS FACT.

BUT HONESTLY, WHEN IT COMES TO THE ROUGHEST OF POPULAR CONVERSATIONS, OFTEN THE BEST YOU CAN HOPE FOR IS THE ABILITY TO ISSUE A CLEAR CRYSTALLIZATION OF YOUR VIEWPOINT, EXPOSE WHERE YOU DIFFER AND GET THEM TO SEE THAT LITTLE WINDOW INTO THE GREAT BENEFIT OF HAVING YOUR VIEWPOINT. YOU CAN EVEN LOVINGLY PLEAD WITH THEM TO COME AROUND, BUT AS LONG AS YOU’RE STILL GETTING TO THE CENTRAL LINCHPIN OF WHAT IS CAUSING THE OBSTACLE, YOU SORT OF HAVE HOPE THAT YOU GOT THROUGH IN SOME SMALL WAY. THAT YOU GAVE THEM THE TOOLS TO RECOGNIZE THE TRUTH AT A POINT WHERE THEY ARE MORE READY TO ACCEPT IT. AT LEAST THAT’S WHAT YOU HOPE.

This is well put and I won’t elaborate on it much, though I do recommend reading the whole article for more. There are actually two different pieces of advice (get all the facets in tune, just identify the core difference when you can’t do anything else), and I’m emphasizing the latter because it’s more specific. You can see it relates to previous points in this article.

What about Gamergate then? The writer says it’s impossible to have a conversation with people in it because it has no core beliefs at all — the well-intentioned people in it are in it for vague notions of goodness, and they can disavow anything negative about it as not part of the real movement, and every attack against it just becomes a personal attack for them. He likens this to “cult” tactics.

6. Patience, compassion, respect

After saying how normal conversational tactics don’t work against “cult” mentality, I’m happy to be able to point to an example of how someone got through to someone in a cult.

Just as an aside to clarify things, I’m taking both the stance that it makes sense to call something a “cult”, and that the Church of Scientology is at least often such a cult. For what “cult”, as in “dangerous cult”, means here, I can refer you to a previous article of mine here, and to a page I recently created on TV Tropes to discuss the different meanings (a wiki page so subject to changes), and finally and most importantly to The Skeptic’s Dictionary. However, that’s not the topic here.

This is from the story of someone persuaded to leave Scientology. The participants are Tory Bezazian, who was in the Church of Scientology and acting as a counter-critic to its many critics; and Andreas Heldal-Lund, who runs the (fact-based) anti-Scientology website Operation Clambake and was assumed by Bezazian to be “the devil”. He surprised her by sending a polite note and they ended up having an e-mail exchange.

Writing in the first person plural as if she were a group of Scientologists, Bezazian asked Heldal-Lund on July 14 to explain how he could maintain such a horrific Website. “What is your actual goal?” she asked.

“This is like asking for my meaning of life,” the Norwegian responded. “I care when I see injustices. I don’t like lies and fraud. I’m especially sensitive to lies and deceit that few oppose because there is a threat connected to doing so. I saw this when I investigated [the Church of Scientology.] I’m not saying…that all scientologists are bad…I believe they are good people with the best intentions….But they are (in my opinion) misguided and wasting their good efforts and time…”

Bezazian realized that everything Heldal-Lund was saying in this and several other early messages in their correspondence — about his belief in openness, free speech and the search for truth — were the tenets that she believed had always been at the core of her own being. Instead, Bezazian says, she admitted to herself that she’d been living very differently, encouraged by Scientology to lie continually. To lie to others about how well Hubbard’s tech was helping her life, to lie about how much she was enjoying herself on OT VII, to ignore the truth about the excesses and inconsistencies of an organization she’d belonged to for so long.

She knows now that spending weeks debating critics on a.r.s. had prepared her for this moment. The arguments she encountered there — about the Lisa McPherson case, the raids in Europe, about the high price of reaching OT levels and dozens of other topics — had increasingly rung true for her. “It was like the critics were beginning to poke holes in the walls of my Truman Show,” she says. “Sunshine was starting to pour inside.”

She uses another analogy: For 30 years she had constructed her life like a skyscraper made of playing cards. Participating on a.r.s. had yanked away so many cards that only one remained holding up her entire belief system.

And then Andreas Heldal-Lund gave that card a pull.

As you can see, this is also another example of how the truth it waiting to come out among all the lies. However, the respect and sincerity shown are also important here — and elsewhere. Perhaps they are generally intertwined with the “show, don’t tell” strategy above. Another article on the same site, called “How to talk to a Scientologist”, certainly puts them together, in more detail.

So how do you talk to a Scientologist? With care and understanding. They found a reason to be in it. Give them the space and time and resources to find a reason to be out of it.

7. Make them feel good about themselves first

This one’s pretty simple (in theory, anyway). Studies show that people are more willing to change their minds if they’re first made to think of something positive about themselves. Presumably it takes away the sting of it seeming personal about them. I’m not sure how this should be applied in practice.

Here’s a more detailed quote (actually the abstract):

Why do people resist evidence that challenges the validity of long–held beliefs? And why do they persist in maladaptive behavior even when persuasive information or personal experience recommends change? We argue that such defensive tendencies are driven, in large part, by a fundamental motivation to protect the perceived worth and integrity of the self. Studies of social–political debate, health–risk assessment, and responses to team victory or defeat have shown that people respond to information in a less defensive and more open–minded manner when their self–worth is buttressed by an affirmation of an alternative source of identity. Self–affirmed individuals are more likely to accept information that they would otherwise view as threatening, and subsequently to change their beliefs and even their behavior in a desirable fashion. Defensive biases have an adaptive function for maintaining self–worth, but maladaptive consequences for promoting change and reducing social conflict.

8. Don’t get into no-win debates

Sometimes, you can only make things worse or just waste time by trying to debate a point when you have no chance of convincing the other party. Remember that you can’t just win by being right — this list is all about that problem. Here are a couple of articles that argue it’s no good publicly debating “creationists” about evolution. The reason why not is roughly that it’s not a good idea to explain complicated scientific ideas in a short time frame against a rhetorically skilled opponent who’s controlling the show and to an audience that doesn’t want to believe you anyway. This sounds like something of an extreme case, and it’s only one kind of case, but I expect the same thing will turn up elsewhere too.

Bonus: More from this weblog

I don’t want to make this list endless, so I’ll just make a brief mention that there are some articles on this weblog that could also have been points on this list:

Conclusion

So, what does this all amount to? Honestly? At the moment, to a disjointed list of lessons with some connections between the different points beginning to emerge. Almost all of the points have severe limitations that mean you can’t always apply them, or at least that they won’t always be effective. Many of the cases are so complicated they can’t be properly explored here, for example the logic of cults.

I could have done more analysis, but this was work enough. Some of the core points emerging between the different cases are identifying the core of the issue and getting there; avoiding making your argument threatening to the other person’s ego and values; finding common ground; letting the truth be known and speak for itself at the rate that’s natural for the other person; and respect, patience and kindness. Perhaps behind all of this seeing the issue for what it is from both of your viewpoints and acting accordingly. That’s so abstract it’s not very useful in practice. To find the answers on how to communicate to people who don’t listen, I’ll have to keep looking, and probably practising. This article highlights some of what I’ve found so far.

As a final note, I have written this largely assuming a situation where the person following the advice is right and the other person being persuaded is wrong. Keep in mind that you can’t just assume you’re right. Fortunately, doing respectful discussion and critical thinking right can work to show the truth to either the person doing it or their conversation partner. It doesn’t seem to me that you’d need to apply different strategies based on whether you’re right or not.

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