How to Convince Someone, or Not

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither.

So begins a Scientific American article on how to convince someone when facts fail. The author explains that two phenomena, cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect, contribute to the difficulty of using facts to change people’s deeply-held beliefs. This should be familiar territory to those of us whose work or personal lives involve “selling improvement” or somehow getting others to make positive changes in their lives and around them.

When we try use facts to correct factually-erroneous beliefs, this can aggravate the situation. Call it resistance to change of mind. According to the article people don’t like feeling cognitive dissonance, the “uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously”, and fight back rather than accept new evidence. Feeling of being right about beliefs, even when factually false, is more important to some people than becoming enlightened by accepting realities that conflict with our world views. This is true to such a degree, the article explains, that there is a “backfire effect” wherein people asked to view evidence proving them wrong doubled-down on their original belief regardless.

Where does that leave those of us who try to change the minds of others? The article’s author suggests based on his experience, to

1. keep emotions out of the exchange,
2. discuss, don’t attack
3. listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately,
4. show respect,
5. acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and
6. try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

That is not a bad list, though perhaps not ordered for sequence. My experience leads me to a slightly different approach.

a. Show respect (4)
b. Listen and articulate their position to demonstrate hearing and understanding (3)
c. Stay cool (1)

Whether or not the other three (2, 3, 5) make the list depends on whether the person who needs convincing feels respected, heard and understood, and how much rapport exists as basis for further respectful interaction.

It seems that #2, discussing differences in how the two sides see the facts, can only lead to trouble if the other side has not asked us for our view of their beliefs. To acknowledge, as in #5, why someone “might hold that opinion” seems also like asking for trouble, a prelude to telling them why they are wrong. It’s not clear how to do #6, or showing that “changing facts does not mean changing world views”. World views are at the root of what causes people to feel strongly about a certain set of facts. It’s a nice way of saying bias, filter or agenda. A world view either conforms with the facts or is the result of wishful thinking. If thinking is wishful, it is understandable that there would be fallout if the facts being presented deny what one is wishing for.

The beliefs people hold, supported by facts or otherwise, provide something of value to them. Why not add value through cooperative problem solving rather than take away what someone values? A continuous improvement approach would be to explore whether or not the matter under disagreement represents a common problem that benefits from joint action to solve, or represents different problems to each side. Even when there is no common problem, why not see if it’s possible to lend a hand in solving their problem?

2 Comments

  1. Ashok Motwani

    January 2, 2017 - 10:54 am

    Great article and good logic to not consider points 2,3 & 5.
    In my words, “Understanding something” stems from
    1) knowing what is the end goal one has to reach
    2) able to provide an evidence based on an action that the goal was achieved as he/she applied what was to be understood
    I will like your readers to skim through the article in 2 parts by “Dr. Bob Kizlik – WHAT IT MEANS TO UNDERSTAND SOMETHING”

  2. Bruce Herbert

    January 5, 2017 - 9:10 pm

    Pity that this doesn’t get applied more in political discourse. Also a good explanation as to why social media tends to aggravate and polarize opinions. Often no a, b, or c. – opposite usually. Something about not making eye contact so thoughts become words – often words you would never use if the recipient was facing you