It’s been a particularly polarising few years, both here in Aotearoa and across the world. As a result, it seems people have become more divided than ever. The left vs the right. Millennials vs Baby Boomers. Environmental campaigners vs climate change deniers. Gender vs sex debaters. Anti-lockdown protesters. Cancel culture vs freedom of speech debaters. The list goes on.
During last year’s New Zealand election, voters were navigating two divisive referendums: the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill (with no votes narrowly prevailing) and the End of Life Choice Act (which will come into law in November despite more than a third of voters voting against it). And now with Covid-19 refusing to budge globally, the vaccine debate has again heated up.
It’s likely you feel strongly about at least one of the issues mentioned above. Chances are, too, that you’ll have a loved one that has a differing opinion to you, which can result in some very tough conversations. Here are some strategies to help you keep your cool during these tricky discussions – and possibly even change their minds.
When it comes to having difficult conversations, many of us will go in with the mentality of ‘winning at all costs.’ This approach will never convince anyone to change their thinking. In fact, it’s likely to help solidify their existing opinion even more – a phenomenon known as the ‘boomerang effect.’ Studies have shown for example, that public messaging aimed at reducing smoking, alcohol and drug consumption actually had the reverse effect.
Instead of being confrontational, listen. Try to understand their point of view. Be respectful. This will help you understand why they hold the views they do. Put yourselves in their shoes and be empathetic to their beliefs. Remember: they likely think that your perspective on the issue is wrong too so tread carefully.
Find common ground
Even with the most divisive of topics, it’s likely that you will share at least some common ground with the person. When it comes to the vaccine debate, for example, people’s decisions (regardless of what side of the fence they are on) are generally about keeping their loved ones safe and healthy. That’s something we can all appreciate so offer narratives that fit with this understanding. If talking to someone who is vaccine hesitant, perhaps tell them about the true story of someone who’s life was saved from a vaccine. Or rather than saying elderly people should take the vaccine, instead say that you are encouraging your parents (or grandparents) to get the jab because you want them to be protected.
Think beyond the facts
Beliefs are intrinsically tied to people’s values and identity. Attacking someone’s political leaning or approach to public health, for example, is – as far as your brain is concerned – akin to the threat of a physical attack. When beliefs are this entrenched, statistics and facts won’t get you anywhere.
Instead, Peter Boghassian and James Lindsay, authors of How to Have Impossible Conversations, suggest that a more effective strategy is to instil doubt in people’s thinking – a concept known as the ‘Unread Library Effect.’ One way is to ask them how they know what they know (in a non-antagonising way of course). Let them talk but continue to ask questions that explore their depth of knowledge on the topic (while admitting your ignorance about it). In many instances, they will show their own gaps in knowledge about the topic – which can then spark channels for open conversation.
Don’t mention myth or misinformation
If you think the conversation could benefit from introducing facts, ensure you stick to the key points. Don’t be coaxed into talking about myths or misconceptions on the topic. Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry at the University of Hull, explains that comparing fact with falsehoods often elicits something known as the ‘backfire effect’, whereby the myth ends up becoming more memorable than the fact.
Basically, overtime our brains forget the context in which we were told information. So, in a conversation where you were presented with a fact which debunked a myth, over time you are simply left with the raw information. The myth and the fact, therefore, can’t be untangled in the mind and, as a result, become understood as important as each other.
If you’ve ever been told ‘don’t think about elephants’ before the image of an elephant appears in your mind, you’ll understand how this phenomenon can happen. And if you’re currently picturing an elephant, apologies.