Taking to People With Different Ideas: A How-to Guide

On this site we talk a lot about reaching out and connecting with people of different views. That doesn’t even necessarily mean the die hard Trump supporters, or Neo-Nazis, or White Nationalists, or Men’s Rights Activists. Sometimes, those connections can be too traumatizing or triggering for some of us. If you are a person who feels adequately prepared mentally and emotionally, and in a place of social privilege to be able to tackle those connections, we applaud and support your efforts! If you aren’t we understand. Our apathetic, non-voting family, or non-Trump supporting Conservative friends, family, and community members are people we can reach out to as well.

One thing we haven’t really addressed yet, is the how of talking to people. How do we frame our conversations when approaching topics that get down to the very core of people’s values and worldviews so that they don’t just reject our words as personal attacks?

Lucky for us, this is actually something that has been studied in experiments by social psychologists. In a recent article by Scientific America, we learn how to combat what has been called the “Backfire Effect”, to have effective conversations with those who think differently from ourselves. What exactly is the “Backfire Effect”? It is a situation in which “corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question…because it threatens their worldview or self-concept.”

Well, we already had anecdotal evidence of that ourselves. Our question is, what do we do about it? If offering facts or corrections just makes things worse and is off the table, what should we be doing instead?

1. Keep emotions out of the exchange.

When we start to get emotional, it becomes easy to hurt other people or to become hurt ourselves, whether intentionally or not. Just take a deep breath, and channel Spock.

2. Discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum).

What is “ad hominem”? It means directed against a person, rather than against the position they are maintaining. For instance, calling people Hitler, or stupid, or other personal attacks.

3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately.

When I was in the 4th grade, I had my school got a grant to send two kids from each class to a Mediation Workshop. One thing I remember from this workshop, was about listening and articulating back to the person. It can be hard. We get into the habit of listening to respond and counter, but we need to learn to listen to hear what people are actually saying. Hear their words. Listen to the supporting examples, evidence, or emotions they give, because to them, those things are important. Frame it back to them: “If I’m hearing you correctly, you feel that X is important because of Y, and Z, is that correct?” It’s only after you’ve established that you’re both starting from the same frame of reference that you can make any progress moving forward with communication.

4. Show respect.

This should be obvious, but sometimes it’s hard. As we said before, we aren’t all starting at the same point, with the same experiences, or the same education. We don’t need to denigrate eachother because of this. Take a breath and remember, we’re working on it. They’re working on it too. If it gets too much, you can always let the person know that you would love to continue the conversation more, later, when you’re feeling fresh. If they let you know that, listen. Because that is part of respect.

5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion.

Don’t just say that though. If you truly don’t understand, let them know you’ll do some independent research and touch base with them later. It’s ok to come back to it. You’re building a connection with this person by being respectful and following through. If you do understand that these are opinions a person could have, don’t gaslight the person by acting like they are crazy or not making sense. That is a straight up abuse tactic, and not ok.

6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

These strategies may not always work to change people’s minds, but now that the nation has just been put through a political fact-check wringer, they may help reduce unnecessary divisiveness. People can know the same facts and still be on different ends of the spectrum, politically. But, when we are all on the same page it helps us to understand and empathize with eachother more readily, and breaks down those barriers. It makes it easier for people to say, “Well, typically I believe in X, but I can see how in this situation that will negatively impact people because of Y and Z which I know now, so in this case, maybe we need to compromise.”

This may seem too easy to work, but in my experience this is a pretty great strategy. Just this week my mom called to tell me about an experience with a friend of hers from work, who had voted for Trump, and had in the past made misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic comments. My mom doesn’t have a lot of formal education and she doesn’t really know how to use the internet, so she isn’t a person who can pull out a lot of facts or statistics to correct people. However, she is one of the sweetest, kindest people I have ever met. She had been working with this person for a while now, and whenever these comments would arise she would just begin a conversation, about empathy, asking why the person felt that way about women, or trans-folks, or gay people, and just breaking it down. Why, why why, why? Well on New Years this guy went out with friends to a bar, and they got drunk, and his friends started hitting on this woman they thought was absolutely gorgeous. Over the course of the evening she let them know she was trans. Some of the guy’s friends started to get rough, but the guy stepped in, and started talking to his friends about some of the things my mom had talked to him about. He even called the woman an Uber and made sure she made it out of the bar ok.

We may not see the difference we make, or maybe we will, but having these types of conversations with the people in our lives can make a huge difference!


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