Winning Hearts and Minds

Persuading someone to change their views about something is a delicate art. It’s like coaxing an animal out of a cage – you need the right balance of encouragement and restraint to make progress without scaring them back inside. I find it so frustrating when I see people promoting a worthy cause so militantly that it only ends up alienating people.

I am particularly passionate about the dangers of science denial, and I therefore feel compelled to intervene when people say irrational things that I strongly believe are wrong. How do I try and change their mind without causing offence and with the best chance of success?

It’s OK to be diplomatic

We are ingrained with the notion that it is noble to argue valiantly and passionately for what you believe in, whatever the circumstances. While I do have a kind of respect for people who are prepared to do this (I am far too unconfrontational for this approach) I have to wonder if it’s really always the best way. I’m pretty convinced that being militant about anything is more likely to hurt your cause than to help it. Any kind of aggressive reaction is likely to make your opponent defensive and cling even more tightly to their misguided belief. An initial diplomatic attitude may be more constructive than militancy, no matter how admirable the intention.

Know your audience

What kind of person are they – are they likely to listen to reason? If so, excellent! You can have a civilised debate with sensible arguments and maybe they will be won over. This blog describes a step-by-step method of refuting arguments one by one and voila! How could your opponent fail to change their mind?!

Sadly, this is not the way it usually works.  I once wasted my breath trying to reason with a stoned neo-Nazi at a bus stop before realising it was pointless as none of his views were based on anything like actual sense. People so entrenched in irrational views are not likely to be argued out of them by rationality.

While you might be prepared to write off a random stranger as a hopeless case, it gets more complicated when it’s someone you’re close to or respect. This is when you may want to try the other techniques.

Convince them you’re not an enemy

Louis Theroux is very good at this. His demeanour is so non-threatening that people are happy to open up to him, which is key to understanding their mentality and therefore how to change it.

Ask gentle questions. Sound interested rather than accusatory. Try and highlight a point on which you both agree, and then ask a question that they would be hard-pressed to disagree with.  For example, in response to an advocate of homeopathy, you might point out ‘I agree, it’s clear that a lot of people feel better after undergoing homeopathy, but don’t you think it seems a bit weird that diluting something can make it more potent?’  You can then suggest an alternative, more rational explanation, like ‘isn’t it more likely that the process of having a consultation, along with the act of taking a pill regularly (as opposed to what’s claimed to be in it) could be what’s making them feel better?’

Instead of just lecturing someone on why they are wrong, a more effective technique is to employ gentle Socratic questioning, encouraging them to examine and reassess their own assertions.

Avoid smugness

It’s true that often ignorance is the cause of irrational beliefs, but you’re not going to get anywhere by offending people or making them feel stupid.

Skeptics, a community with whom I identify, are often guilty of smugness. It’s easy to start feeling superior because you’re oh-so-enlightened and rational, but as we know, pride comes before a fall. I know people who instinctively take opposing views to skeptics just because they resent their smugness, and this is not helping the cause.

Essentially, arguments are not about winning points. While you may have instigated a debate as a response to a statement you disagreed with, keep your mind open, stay humble and you might both come away wiser.

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