Persuasion and the art of listening

My father sent me an interesting article by Zaria Gorvett of the BBC discussing the ways in which society is becoming more polarised, and pointing out that talking to like-minded friends about a subject actually tends to make people more polarised on that subject and less open to new information.  It’s interesting, because this occurs even when people are deliberately having these conversations to try to add nuance to their opinions – and because apparently it turns out that the more information people acquire, the more polarised they tend to be.

(I wonder if this last bit is because the more information you have, the more confident you are that you have the full and true picture, for which there can be only one possible explanation?)

I went to three presentations in the last three days and while the subject matter was wildly different, I found myself noticing some common threads between the presentations and this article.  This post is my attempt to tease some of this out and make sense of it.  (A quick disclaimer: these are my notes on the presentations I went to – the things that stayed with me may not have been the key messages that the presenters were trying to get across, and it’s entirely possible that I’m not representing them entirely accurately!  If you are one of the presenters and are reading this, and I have managed to misquote or mischaracterise what you said, please comment, and I will fix it forthwith!)

The first presentation I went to was on Sunday afternoon, and was an ecumenical gathering about how churches could respond to the current refugee crisis in Australia.  They talked a little about political responses, but more about personal and interpersonal connections. Indeed, one theme seemed to be that the Christian approach to social justice is intrinsically personal; you start with the individual, and work outward from there, through community.

Working from this starting point, many of the stories we were told (and much of the advice we were given) centred around forming these connections.  The speakers emphasised meeting with and making friends with asylum seekers, and drawing them into our circles.  This is important on several levels.  Firstly, social isolation is a huge problem for refugees (and indeed, for any new immigrants), and anything that addresses this is important; and refugees are feeling pretty abandoned and hated by our society – it’s helpful for them to know that people actually do care.  But secondly, knowing refugees as people and individuals, rather than as a mass of people about whom we make assumptions (good or bad) is vitally important when it comes to advocacy.  It’s a cliché, but a true one, that the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic.  It’s easier to relate to the story of one person than to the huge, apparently intractable, problem of millions of people fleeing their countries.And this is hugely important when talking to others who have strong negative feelings about refugees – the story of the Iranian man who the Taliban have already condemned to death and put up wanted posters for, but whose claim for asylum has been rejected by Australia, because there is apparently insufficient evidence that he’d be at risk if he returns home, is more powerful than simply knowing the number of people currently in detention on Manus Island and how long they’ve been there for.

(As a passing thought, this focus on individuals and personal connections also applies to the people who want to help – the problem and tragedy of the refugee situation is so huge and overwhelming that one can feel paralysed by it, and do nothing.  It’s a lot more manageable to help one person or family at a time, and it still makes a difference…)

We were encouraged to have conversations with people who don’t agree with us, to tell these humanising stories – but of course, these conversations, too, require a personal connection.  Nobody responds well to being lectured at and told they are wrong, and a conversation needs to be as much about listening as talking, and respecting the fears and concerns of the other.  From a purely practical level, this makes sense – if you are trying to get someone to change their mind, you need to know what they are thinking in the first place, and why they are thinking it (this takes me back to the BBC article again, of course, since it also mentions that people tend to assume they understand opposing opinions far better than they actually do).  And of course, it’s a kinder way to behave, and I’m all in favour of kindness – I don’t think shouting at people or telling them they are stupid does anything but entrench them in their opinions, and I have no idea why such a large proportion of the internet appears to believe otherwise.  (I know, I need to stop reading internet comments threads…)

The second presentation I went to, on Sunday evening, was a screening of the excellent documentary Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines, followed by a panel discussion featuring several research scientists as well as Sonya Pemberton, the woman who wrote and directed the documentary.  Incidentally, this is an absolutely first-class documentary, and I highly recommend it if you’ve ever wanted to know more about vaccination and the science behind it (and just how much science there is involved in it).

A few things came up here.  One was the fact that humans are really, really brilliant at making patterns and connections, and really, really terrible at assessing risk, and this plays into the vaccination debate.  (The scientific method, in many ways, goes absolutely against the grain of what our brains like to do.  Our brains would much rather leap from an observed correlation to a conclusion than trudge through a series of experiments, half of which probably won’t work, to test whether the correlation is meaningful or just an accident of timing.)  The documentary included an interview with paediatric neurologist, Ingrid Schaeffer, and the parents of a child who had begun having terrible seizures seventeen hours after a vaccination.  The seizures were eventually determined to have a genetic cause (a particularly nasty form of epilepsy) and would have occurred sooner or later whether or not the child had the vaccine – onset for this condition is before the age of five – but in this instance, the vaccine was the thing that made the epilepsy start then, rather than a month or a year later.  It wasn’t the cause, but it was the trigger.

The reason I mention this was that Prof. Schaeffer spoke at our Institute a few years ago, and I was absolutely impressed by the respectful way she spoke about the parents of the children who had these seizures after the vaccine.  She pretty much said that they were absolutely *right* to draw the initial conclusion that the vaccine was responsible for the seizures.  It is absolutely, 100% logical and rational, if your healthy child suddenly becomes ill right after a vaccine, to start looking suspiciously at the vaccine.  And, while they were wrong about the vaccine being the ultimate cause of the illness, they were correct in observing that there was a link between the two, even if it wasn’t absolutely causative.  The implication as I understood it was that this observation did provide valuable information in working out how the illness worked.  And she said she was inclined to suspect that the perceived autism link might turn out to be similar – a genetic cause, with the vaccine triggering the onset *at that time*, but with the understanding that it would have occurred regardless, no matter what the parents had done.   The feeling I had was that she viewed the parents of her patients as allies and collaborators in understanding the health of their children.

The panel discussion turned, several times, to how we can change this perception that vaccines are dangerous – how do we change minds?  This is, of course, an important public health concern, as diseases like measles are ridiculously contagious and require something like a 95% vaccination rate to prevent them from spreading.  Sonya Pemberton told us a story about one of the people she worked with on the documentary, who started off very much against vaccination, but decided, after four years working with her on this documentary, to have his children vaccinated after all.  When she asked him why, his answer was that when he asked her questions, she always answered them respectfully and didn’t make him feel stupid for asking them.

Another thing Ms Pemberton talked about was how she went about making the film.  She comes from a medical family and has always been very pro-vaccination, so for her, the start of the process was to really dive into the other side of the story – to read all the things anti-vaxxers were writing, and to try to understand where they were coming from.  And she talked about how difficult this was, because her own views about the benefits of vaccination were so strong that dismissing the contrary view was almost reflexive.

This ties in to the third presentation, which was a workshop I went to on Monday around gender equity in the workplace.  It talked a lot about implicit bias, and how this works, and ways to counter it, as well as identifying risks of bias and how to address these.

Implicit bias, if you have never heard the term before, is the stuff we believe without knowing we believe it.  There’s a thing called ‘implicit association testing’, where you are shown various words, and have to respond as fast as possible in either a positive or negative way.  (It drives me nuts because I have terrible reflexes, and it took me about six tries to get through the test at work because I kept being too slow to click on anything at all.  If you are interested, Harvard has a whole raft of these tests here.  [I like them better because I can actually pass these ones…])  The thinking behind this sort of testing is that humans have two modes of thinking.  One is fast, reflexive thinking, and the other is slow, reflective thinking.  Fast, reflexive thinking is something we use for things like driving cars or playing sports, or for any actions where it’s more efficient not to think about it.  Unfortunately, our brains love being efficient, and fast, reflexive thinking is super-efficient, which is a problem, because fast, reflexive responses tend to be the sorts of things that were ingrained in us by our upbringing – associating women with domesticity and men with leadership, for example, and it only gets less socially-acceptable from there.  Our conscious thoughts on the matter might be entirely different (I am outraged that I apparently associate leadership with masculinity, but was pleased to note that my commitment to never doing any housework shone through when it came to the domesticity part of the survey.  Apparently, I don’t associate anyone with housework, which explains a lot about the state of our house.), but our brains like those patterns and will revert to them instinctively if we don’t pause to reflect.

One purpose of this workshop was for us to figure out where our own implicit biases were, and how to slow down our thinking so that our ingrained biases didn’t affect our actual judgment. The other part of the workshop was about identifying various ‘risk areas’ for bias in the workplace, and think of ways to address them.  I’m not going to talk about the second part, because work politics should stay at work, but it was interesting because a lot of what we were doing in this workshop was learning to listen to ourselves and question the assumptions inherent in what we were saying.  (Apparently, thinking before we speak is something most of us are not very good at, at least in conversational situations.)

To me, this ties back in to the question of how do you persuade people to think differently about something, because persuading others may well start with thinking differently yourself.  It’s easy to stereotype people we disagree with as being stupid or selfish, but how are our own biases playing into that? And even if we are right, is that really a helpful way to think?  If someone really is entirely stupid and selfish, is there any point in engaging?  I think we have to either decide that they do, in fact, have something to offer, or give up the attempt at persuasion.  Otherwise, I suspect we are just feeding our own egos or showing off (or enjoying feeling persecuted).

So perhaps the slow thinking has to happen even before we start to engage?

I think, too, we have to start from a place of acknowledging that the other person might, just might, be at least a tiny little bit right about something.  It’s even possible that they have thought of something we haven’t thought of.  Which means listening to their argument (you can’t really expect someone to listen to you if you don’t listen to them), and not responding reflexively, but actually letting what they say sit with you long enough to actually think about it.  I don’t know if I even know how to do this, to be honest.  Not on topics that I care passionately about.  There are some arguments that it goes against the grain to consider even for a moment.  But I’m not saying that it isn’t appropriate to absolutely reject some arguments – I think there are some ideas out there that are so loathsome that they have to be rejected, firmly, and absolutely.  But perhaps not reflexively?  Perhaps they still need to be heard and contemplated, and then rejected vigorously?  Perhaps we can reject them *better* if we’ve taken a breath and not said the first thing that comes into our head at that point?

I don’t know.  I’m terrible at this stuff, and worse at confrontation.

(I realise that this is all ideal world stuff, by the way – some of the more awful arguments wandering around in our public discourse at present speak to people’s very identities, and it is not reasonable to ask people to sit meekly and gently with an attack on their essential selves before answering it.  It’s not their job to do that!  It’s their job to do whatever they need to do at that point.  And it’s the bystander’s job to support them in whatever way is most useful and appropriate at the time.)

I think I’ve wandered off the topic somewhat.  I definitely don’t want to argue that we should be channeling our inner calm when people are ranting racist/sexist/homophobic/insert-your-bigotry-of-choice-here rants in our direction or in someone else’s.

Let’s go back to the original idea, which is, I think, about persuading people to think about something differently.  And I think it comes down to some fairly simple ideas, which are horrendously difficult to carry out.  Respect for the other, even where you disagree.  Listening as well as talking, and not automatically dismissing what they say.  Assuming good faith when people ask questions, and answering accordingly.  Trying to understand where the other person is coming from.  Being kind.  Being aware of your own prejudices and baggage.

These are pretty good rules for dealing with people in most circumstances, actually.

I also suspect that debating and logical arguments are somewhat overrated as means to changing people’s minds.  This is not to say that people don’t change their minds when presented with new information or a clever argument (I certainly hope they do, or this blog is rather a pointless exercise), but I do think that in many of these situations it’s really more about changing hearts than minds.  And that, I think, requires a connection between two people, and enough openness to risk some persuasion flowing back in the other direction.  I think it also requires time – not just one conversation, but many.  And I suspect it really is about emphasising the personal over the political, the individual over the number, the relationship over the need to be right.

The other over the ego.

(And if you figure out how to do all that in practice, please let me know.  I could definitely use some help on this one…)

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4 thoughts on “Persuasion and the art of listening

  1. I think you have to change the heart before you can change the mind, or at the very least both at once.

    The point the documentary coworker made about feeling respected, listened to and not put down is really vital! I’m always a little shocked when people don’t see how vital that is.

  2. I like the connections you’ve made, and how you’ve brought those thoughts together. I am practicing repeating back (in my own words) what someone has said to me – it gives me time to process what they’ve just said, and gives them a chance to correct my misconceptions. I fail to do this most of the time, hence the practicing 😉

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