We all struggle to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with us.
The topic may not even be particularly important, for instance, the brand of toothpaste we favor. But if it’s something we really care about, then our anxiety and discomfort go through the roof. In these days of facing those on the other side, a host of social psychologists and neuroscientist are testing various techniques to “nudge” folks to change their minds. In reading the latest papers, it seems like the same ol’, same ol’ to me, but then, along with Mary Lynn Mann, I wrote two books on change, Fearless Change and More Fearless Change. The books contain patterns that can be applied to influence individuals as well as organizations. This article will be a little review of one of those patterns in light of new evidence.
First and most important, I find it hard to believe that many of us still try to use facts to convince. Whether it’s in that contentious conversation or replying to a post on social media, our reflex is to reach for data. And when we’ve outlined, logically, and clearly, our case that beautifully illustrates for all the world to see, how right we are, we feel so proud. “See, I showed him/her!” We don our most self-righteous smile and wait. Unfortunately, as we have all seen, over and over, logic has no impact. Scientific experiments show that our experience is not unique. Facts do not convince. Facts are easily ignored. Facts get us nowhere. So why do we continue to use them?
I think it’s because we believe that we, ourselves, are convinced by facts. We are smart people, so we’re sure that we make decisions logically and rationally. We examine the evidence and reach a sensible conclusion. Furthermore, we believe that we make all decisions this way – but especially the important ones. So, when someone disagrees with us and doesn’t pay attention to our presentation of the facts, then we conclude, logically, that those people must not be very smart. If they were as smart as we thought they were, then they would have followed our nice logical argument, accepted our data, and, voila, we would be in perfect agreement.
I have a friend who facilitates business negotiations. He told me that it’s easy to get people to come to the table to work out their disagreements. The reason for this willingness is that each side believes that if they clearly outline their stance on the issue that the other side will see how wrong they are, and consensus will be easily reached. This belief, by the way, has been christened by social psychologists as one of our many cognitive biases – naïve realism. Just search on “cognitive bias” for a nice, long list of our biases, heuristics, or thinking flaws. Their study has kept many researchers busy for years.
Someone once asked me if being aware of our cognitive biases would help us go around them or over them or see them coming, so they wouldn’t trip us up. The answer is, sadly, no, these cognitive biases are hardwired. That means they provided, over our long history, some evolutionary advantage, so now we are stuck with them. We have been using these heuristics or biases for tens of thousands of years and despite extensive examination, it’s difficult to do anything about them.
If biases are hardwired and facts don’t work, then what are we to do? Fortunately, we are also hardwired to cooperate, collaborate, and, at least for some special people, get along and reach agreement. The way we do that is simply to listen. Boy, does that sound easy! But it’s like a lot of things that sound easy, it’s so hard to do. Most of the time when we listen, we’re picking up key words so that when we can’t stand it any longer, we can jump it and tell what we know about that topic. Often, we do this without really hearing anything the other person is saying. We only hear those keywords and then we’re ready to go.
Pay attention to the next conversation you overhear. While one person is talking, is the other person waiting to pounce with his/her own story? Or does the listener ask questions that indicate a real willingness to understand? Further, do the questions evidence an appreciation for what the speaker has been saying? Do the questions show curiosity, not judgment? Do the questions help the speaker really get his/her point across? Does real learning happen? Does real sharing of knowledge and experience take place? That’s the kind of listening I’m talking about – not just remaining silent, holding on to the keyword, waiting for your chance to talk.
A strange thing happens when someone really listens to you. The experience causes us to feel better. We feel better about the topic. We feel better about the listener. We feel better about ourselves. We feel more open to return the favor to the appreciative listener and others who might be speaking. We also benefit by learning what it is we really want to say, what we really feel. This feeling enables us to bond with each other. This kind of communication intimacy is typically reserved for those in our own “tribe.” It’s one of the things that cements connection. We typically don’t listen to anyone who isn’t in our “tribe.” We don’t give them that kind of respect. What a different world it would be if we were to change that – if we started really listening to everyone.
It’s also possible to “listen someone into agreeing with you.” Did you get that? I didn’t say to argue, use facts, talk them down, I said, “listen them into agreeing with you.” That’s the essence of the pattern “Fear Less,” for which the book “Fearless Change” is named. Do such a great job of listening that the speaker comes around to your side.
As Stephen Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Thank you, Stephen Covey. The world needs more and better listeners. I think we can do this. I think we must do this. Please experiment and let me know what works for you.
Linda Rising is an independent consultant who lives in Tennessee. She has authored four books and numerous articles and is an internationally known presenter on topics related to patterns, retrospectives, influence strategies, agile development, and the change process.
With a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in the field of object-based design metrics, Linda's background includes university teaching and software development in a number of different domains.https://lindarising.org