Sunday, May 25, 2014

You Change Someone's Mind By Listening To Them

I was skipping around on the internet this evening reading blogs, which is something I do sometimes at night when my husband and daughter have gone to sleep but I'm not tired yet and I don't have to get up early for work the next day. I start at a blog I like and then just follow links around, skimming through articles as they catch my interest. Most of what I read tonight was by Christian authors and, unfortunately, involved a lot of theological name calling by people who were distressed by the opinions of other people. It's quite frustrating and I'm sure that any non-Christians stumbling across the arguments were either confused, put-off, or both. Why can't people come together or at least speak respectfully to one another? Why do people get so stuck on certain issues?

It got me thinking about an article I read recently from The New Yorker ( written by Maria Konnikova. Her article examined the fears that people have about vaccines and why people's minds are so hard to change. To sum up the research she quoted in her article, people don't change their minds easily when the belief in question is central to their identity, but they are more likely to change if you affirm them or get them to affirm themselves (by writing an essay about something they have done well) before exposing them to new information. I found it quite ironic that in the comments section there is an angry tirade about the dangers of vaccines from a mother who chose not to vaccinate her children, which all in all demonstrated the author's point quite tidily. I have found this general idea to be quite true in my own work. When people are affirmed then they are more able to assimilate potentially identity altering information. You might say it's a key tenet of psychotherapy.

It also feels similar to one of Steven Covey's principles in "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." (And yes, I really liked that book. I read it for work because I do administrative and management tasks and didn't expect to enjoy it but it was quite thought provoking. I'm sure I'll have more to say about it again.) His fifth principle is "seek first to understand, then to be understood." He unpacks this phrase to mean that when you are trying to work out any kind of difference with someone you should listen to them with the intention to understand them fully. Before you even try to formulate a reply you should listen so carefully that you can and do explain their position with its motivations and logic even better than they can. He makes the observation that people become much less defensive when they feel fully understood. He terms the process giving someone "psychological air" analogous to placing an oxygen mask on the face of someone gasping for air. It's life-giving. Once they can breathe, psychologically speaking, they stop struggling. I can tell you from experience that being listened to and understood in this way is deeply affirming and opens people up in amazing ways.

I don't know how well this kind of understanding and affirmation could occur over the internet. I suspect that part of what comes across as life-giving is genuine interest; the obvious effort of one person listening to and learning from another. I think quite a bit of communicating genuine interest is non-verbal; the pitch and cadence of voice, the tilt of the head, the set of the shoulders, the little angles around the mouth and eyes that make the difference between sarcasm, polite condescension, pro-forma recitations of formulas, and genuine caring and communication. Perhaps we could all try a little harder, though, to deeply listen to and affirm each other before presenting our own views. Perhaps we could devote words and space to listing the other's accomplishments, or good deeds, or views we do agree with, before criticizing a point they have made. Perhaps we could summarize the arguments of others in clear, fair and respectful ways, asking for correction for any misunderstandings on our part. It would be more work, certainly. But perhaps it would be more Christ-like?