How to Succeed at Influencing People in Difficult Conversations
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters in these examples are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas.
The current political climate has made talking to one another easily polarizing and adversarial. Common approaches to emotionally charged conversations often unwittingly invite reactive rigid responses, control struggles, and resistance to new information - reinforcing the beliefs we hoped to challenge. Whether trying to dispel a myth, offer an opposing belief, or impact family members around a difficult topic, we are more likely to succeed if we recognize and use informed approaches, instead of defaulting to the ill-fated instinctive ones below.
Don’t convey an attitude of certainty or superiority or try to convince the other person they’re wrong - even if they are.
Samantha became fearfully fixated on an idea promoted in a YouTube video that she believed was true. Her dad was concerned because, to him, the content seemed extreme and crazy. “Why would you believe that nonsense?” he exclaimed once again in frustration as she talked about it - foreshadowing a familiar speech. “I love you too dad,” Samantha said sarcastically. Feeling disrespected and annoyed - and thinking about how her dad just doesn’t get it - Samantha retreated more into her own beliefs.
Here, the dad fell into a common trap. Adamantly dismissing his daughter’s belief, he shut down communication - missing an opportunity to find out what Samantha was thinking and possibly impact her. This approach not only created a divide between them, eliminating the potential to have a helpful impact, but backfired - causing Samantha, in self-defense, to adhere more stubbornly to her point of view.
• Be curious and ask authentic (not leading) questions
• Engage critical thinking and learning, not obstructionist defenses
• Let the other person do the work examining their own ideas
• Align with the other person and support the relationship. Don’t put yourself on the opposing team.
In an improved scenario the dad asked his daughter a real (not rhetorical) question, conveying interest in her point of view in a way that didn’t close off the possibility that she could influence him. “Oh, I see. But how can you tell that what she’s saying in the video is true?” he asked in a
curious and respectful tone. Here the dad aligned himself with Samantha, as well as actively engaging her critical thinking, letting her deconstruct her own reasoning and experience any resulting internal struggle.
As in this example, when curiosity is stimulated it primes the mind to develop new ideas and connections - rather than give way to rote reactions. Further, activating critical thinking and curiosity has been found to lead to more accurate beliefs (Pennycook & Rand, 2019).
Neuroscience has shown that critical thinking and sustained learning are more likely to occur when people explicitly think about and articulate information rather than passively take it in and just “know” it implicitly in their mind. Explaining our beliefs and ideas requires the mind to be active, reflective, and integrative as we try to make sense of things. This ultimately tests how thoroughly we understand what we think we know.
Offer a competing explanation that introduces doubt. Don’t repeat the belief you want to challenge because that will strengthen it; lead with new information that is simple and brief (Chan, Jones, Hall Jamieson & Albarracin, 2017).
When people are convinced of something untrue, providing a competing alternative explanation, such as exposing a hidden motive, can introduce doubt and pave the way for new information to enter (Chan et al., 2017). Consistently, bringing out a possible alternate suspect has been shown to help persuade jurors that a defendant may be innocent (Tenney, Cleary & Spellman, 2009).
In a different scenario, Samantha’s dad activated his daughter’s curiosity and open-mindedness with a casual remark while driving her to the mall: “I had a thought about that video that you might find interesting. Let me know if you want to hear it some time.” “Come on dad -what is it?” “You know how the videos that are more extreme and make you feel something intense - seem to be the ones that go viral... Well it made me wonder whether the girl in the video could be making it all up to be popular and get a lot of views. What do you think?” “I don’t know - I never thought about that. I hate when manipulative people are the ones who get popular.”
Here, instead of simply dismissing the video the dad offered another narrative - casting doubt on the girl’s trustworthiness. In this case, the dad was thoughtful and wisely focused on an issue that mattered to Samantha - rather than reacting with his own reflexive objections to it. As seen in this example, learning that a message may be delivered for the purpose of manipulating people - such as tobacco company advertising - can be particularly effective with adolescents (as well as other people concerned with autonomy and control).
Further, Samantha’s dad here was also mindful of timing, tone, and brevity - approaching his daughter in a low-key way when she was relaxed. Timing and being prepared can make or break the way people react and how conversations play out, but often fails to be considered when raising difficult issues. Research demonstrates that mood and mental state biases decision making. Even judges have been found to be more rigid and punitive in sentencing later in the day or when hungry (Cook & Lewandowsky, 2011). Further, when people are stressed or tired, executive functions go off line - diminishing capacity to learn and causing people to be more inflexible and reactive rather than thoughtful.
Don’t use an approach if you already can predict the other person’s negative reaction to it.
Adam, a bright 26-year-old, floundering since college, felt unsuccessful and behind in life. He got high regularly with his friends and his mom was aware of it. As he was idealizing weed when it came up in a therapy session with her, she said, “You know pot affects the brain and can be a gateway drug.” “They call it weed now,” Adam retorted sarcastically. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s natural - it’s just a plant. It doesn’t appear to have affected my intelligence and actually makes me more creative.”
Here, by bringing up a finding that felt annoyingly predictable and didn’t ring true to Adam his mom not only failed to motivate him but diminished her credibility in his eyes and incited a defensive control struggle between them. Rushing in to take an opposing position can reinforce polarization - paradoxically increasing the other person’s loyalty to their stance regardless of how much they’re actually identified with it as was the case with Adam.
• Use information that the other person cares about rather than something generic and predictable or what matters to you.
With some guidance from the therapist, the mom waited for a moment when Adam was feeling bad about not getting things done again (Adam feels his own motivation) and said, “I know you have found weed helps you be loose and have creative ideas. (Recognizing his experience and what’s important to him). Maybe for you it’s not a problem in a lot of ways. But do you remember what makes you most discouraged in your life?” “Being behind... more time passing and still being in the same place,” Adam answered. “I know there’s so much you want to do and how unhappy it makes you to underachieve and not show your potential. How does being high affect your ability to stay on task and accomplish your goals?” the mom asked (Using a neutral, respectful tone).
Here the mom leveraged what Adam himself cared about - helping him access his own motivation at a time when he could feel it - instead of imposing herself onto him.
Don’t use language that challenges the other person’s values, political or personal identity - or associates your information with a side. Consider your audience.
Steven, a successful business executive, complained to his wife, Danielle, that people never listened to him at work even when he had a better idea. “You have to be nicer and more polite. I keep telling you that.” “I know you want me to be an agreeable nice person but that’s not my personality. I’m not scared to tell it like it is. I’m not going to sugar coat things.”
Here Danielle made the mistake of using language and values that were important to her but triggering to her husband. The idea of “being nice and polite” went against being a fearless non-conformist and leader - an identity he prided himself on. Consequently, rather than motivating Steven to change his approach, this exchange reinforced his identification with it. Further, using an overplayed argument with her husband, Danielle triggered a negative reaction that she could have predicted and side-stepped.
In an improved scenario, Danielle motivated her husband by focusing on helping him feel more successful, strong, and in control - which was important to him. “I know it’s important to you to be direct and you shouldn’t have to be a different person. But it frustrates you that people aren’t listening to your good ideas. Maybe it would help if you had the option of some other strategies for getting people to be more receptive.”
An example of this mistake in the political arena is approaching financially oriented people about controversial topics using moralistic or scientific arguments clearly associated with the “opposition”. A more effective strategy would be to raise economic arguments that also apply, leveraging an issue that’s more relevant to them and less likely to trigger predictable resistance.
Thoughtful preparation when it comes to conversations involving strong feelings is worth the effort in order to maximize success and effect damage control. Fast forwarding in our minds to predict how communications will likely play out can make it quickly obvious whether, with whom, how, and in what situations we want to engage around loaded topics. This includes being on to your own and the other person’s underlying agenda, for example, wanting to vent anger/frustration, win a power struggle, get validation, or express feelings from other grievances. A common hidden agenda doomed to backfire is not only to wanting to change someone’s mind or behavior - but needing them to do it for the “right” reasons, e.g., have our same values.
If the goal is truly to debunk a myth, teach/inform, or alter behavior, it doesn’t matter what moves people in the direction of improvement. Loyalty to beliefs, ideas, or people may be based on identity, psychological makeup, and/or a sense of belonging. So having the most cogent argument and pointing out the truth, or what seems obvious to us, is not necessarily the most effective strategy. Recognition of what motivates others can bridge communication - offering a more peaceful pathway to effective dialogue - or a decision to disengage.
Chan, M. S., Jones, C. R., Hall Jamieson, K., Albarracin, D. (2017). Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5673564/
Cook, J., Lewandowsky, S. (2011). The Debunking Handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: Queensland.
Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N. Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1529100612451018
Pennycook, G., Rand, D. (2019, January 19). Why do people fall for fake news? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/opinion/sunday/fake-news.html
Tenney, E. R., Cleary, H. M. D., & Spellman, B. A. (2009). Unpacking the doubt in “beyond a reasonable doubt”: Plausible alternative stories increase not guilty verdicts. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 31(1), 1-8. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01973530802659687