Changing People’s Minds
post # 273 — January 2, 2007 — a General post
We all want to know how to change the thinking of our boss, our colleagues, our subordinates, our clients. But itâ€™s very hard to do. After all,
â€œHe whoâ€™s convinced against his will,
Is of the same opinion still.â€
(I remember this couplet from college days, but I donâ€™t remember who wrote it.)
My experience has been that those who seem to like my work most tend to be people who already share my underlying assumptions (about professionalism, people and passion, to name only three things.) Those who do NOT share my assumptions do not seem to appreciate my work, and neither read my work nor hire me for consulting or seminars. I tend not to have the chance to engage in debates with those I would most like to reach – those who do not share my world view and might benefit from considering it. And, of course, vice versa.
The same “talking to ourselves” pheneomenon tends to be true in many fields. Itâ€™s not the left-wingers listening to right-wing radio broadcasts, and if they do, I doubt their views are changed by it. And Congressional and parliamentary debates are all posturing and rhetoric, rather than exercises in reasoning. The opposing parties don’t REALLY listen to the arguments of the other side, do they?Even trials often (mostly?) turn on the predispositions of the jury members – hence the thriving business of selling jury selection advice.
If we’re not REALLY engeged in discourse, what difference does ANY writer, speaker or consultant achieve? Do we all just preach to the already converted?
Ian Welsh, a prominent political blogger (heâ€™s managing director of www.agonist.org) points out that even if you write for those who fundamentally agree with you, one serves a useful purpose by helping people clarify their reasoning and giving them the ammunition to debate and prevail in the discussions THEY need to have.
Is that what we writers, speakers and consultants do? Is that ALL we can do? Or can we truly convert people to different ways of seeing and understanding things than they started off with? If so, how?
Justin Evans said:
While I completely agree with Ian’s point, I also feel like there is a further thought to add to it— I think beyond helping your intellectual allies with clarifying their thinking, the kind of writing/work someone like you does also provides people with both reference and rallying positions. For example, I remember finding a couple of “valued” thinkers while I was in University that I could use to legitimize some of the more contentious ideas I was trying to work with. Reading and citing them not only gave my work credibility in a hostile intellectual environment, they also gave me the courage to continue on the path I was on.
As for your questions:
Is that ALL we can do? Or can we truly convert people to different ways of seeing and understanding things than they started off with? If so, how?
I think Barak Obama is a very interesting case in point. He has a very particular skill set that provides some interesting answers to these questions. He has chosen a very conciliatory way of talking, and debating with those that have very conflicting opinions to him. I don’t know if you’ve seen him debate, but he has a remarkable rhetorical skill set… His major strategy (one which I think is extremely useful in converting people) is to find the common ground and goals he has with his enemies positions, strongly validate a lot of his opponents thinking, and then slowly and very delicately peel away at (what he would consider) the problems therein.
It works, too. A recent poll I saw said more committed republicans would vote for Obama than any other potential candidate the Democrats could field for the next presidential race.
So maybe the answer to your question is a strong sense of diplomacy and a deep understanding of classical rhetoric.
posted on January 2, 2007