Human beings struggle with confirmation bias – we easily accept information that confirms our already existent beliefs while rejecting that which does not. This is why no amount of throwing facts at someone who you think or know is wrong will change their minds. They just tend to reject the information you gave them, give you their opinion, and become even more firmly rooted in their views. Appealing to rationality or logic works very few times, and requires people to be open minded. So we have to find another way. A way that works.
Researchers at Cornell University looked into this, and established some things: First, numbers are important. The more people that reinforce a point of view, the likelier they are to change a person’s mind. A good example is the doctor’s strike in Kenya that ran until early 2017. Initially, many were against it, but after it garnered widespread support and many people began endorsing it on mainstream and social media, it was difficult to come across people who still opposed it, except of course those who were partial to the government.
Timing is also key. The arguments the person encounters first are the likeliest to stick for your position, so arguments should be fine-tuned as they are taken as a blanket representation of a position. It is also important to use calm language. Which is hard, especially when arguing for things one is passionate about, but it is important to observe this. Being able to explain one’s position from different points of view also helps, as opposed to hammering the same point over and over again.
Daryl Davis, a musician who has actually convinced KKK leaders to change their minds and leave the Klan, echoes these findings. His efforts have been fruitful, as the KKK has been unable to re-establish a presence in his home state of Maryland, USA. He urges us to give our opponents a platform to express their views honestly without fear of attack, even when we do not respect what they are saying.
Then, we must counter their stance with knowledge. One should be able to argue the opponent’s position and why they think that way as well as the opponent can, or even better. Know their position as well as you know yours. This prepares you for what they will say, and probably how they will act. This helps with the calm language and attitude suggested by the researchers at Cornell University.
Second, he says you need to focus on having a conversation, not a debate. What’s the difference? A conversation is more focused on listening. A debate is something to win. There is a winner and a loser, and nobody wants to lose. In a conversation, the fact that one is open to hearing the other side means that they will probably reciprocate and be open to hearing one’s side. As he says, “when you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself.”
He recommends that we look for similarities. As we focus more and more on what we have in common, what we don’t have in common matters less and less. He also reinforces the importance of dialogue. When two opposing sides are talking, they are not fighting – they are talking. It is when the talking stops that violence has a chance to take root, so it’s important to keep talking. The more we keep conversation going, the more we find common ground.
All this requires patience. Patience to sit or stand there and hear things you don’t believe in and know aren’t true. To have the conversation without being condescending. Patience to keep going through this process because people’s minds rarely change instantly upon hearing a good argument.
Davis says that we must not explain people’s movements for them – we must let them explain, and then address the points in their explanation. Take note of them as they explain – let them finish, and then address these points. This only works if you have done the work, so do the work. He emphasizes something important. Most times, people are just afraid of the other. Of what’s different. Or who’s different. Which is why we must practice empathy. According to The School of Life, the key to empathizing with the other person is to understand that they’re actually the ones in pain. The only reason they are hurting us is because somewhere deep inside they are hurting themselves. They are not well.
How do we practice empathy? First, be curious. Actually want to know the other person’s point of view, their struggles. Be curious about why they think that way. Be curious about your own point of view. This curiosity is what will inspire you to seek knowledge on both sides. Second, listen, not with the intention to reply, but with the intention to genuinely understand. Ask follow up questions where you need more information. Practice stepping in their shoes and taking their view point. Then, go further and see how you would be talked out of that viewpoint.
Hopefully, if enough of us in our respective societies do this, we may be able to see a change, and live in a society where love, inclusion and acceptance thrive, as opposed to hatred, division and intolerance.