Episode 35 – Why is it so Difficult to Persuade People?

Welcome Friends, Neighbors and people everywhere. This is your host, Michael Nunes.

Welcome to the Thirty-Fifth episode of my podcast, The Power of Three. I want to help show you how harnessing the Power of Three can lead to a more fulfilling life, a life that celebrates our differences and our similarities, and accepts that we are part of the great web of life.

In this episode, I will discuss the difficulties of persuasion. I started this podcast with the idea that if you have a set of logical proposals, it should not be difficult to persuade people to change their minds. It appears that I was wrong. One of the frustrations of life’s journey is that you find your fundamental ideas about the world challenged.

Those challenges are often hard to swallow, and there are many ways to approach them. You can ignore the challenge and continue as though it does not exist. You can try to face it head on and argue your way out of it. Or you can submit and accept the reality of that challenge.

We create an edifice as we mature, building on a foundation of beliefs, understandings and myths. That edifice contains all that we are, our worldview, our perspective of life. This is the reason that it is so difficult to persuade someone to change his or her mind. When an idea questions a cherished belief, we may need to change our entire view of life in order to accommodate the new idea. Very few people are willing to change the foundations of their belief. That would mean changing the entire way you see life, the way you relate to others.

It is one thing to successfully persuade someone to purchase a product. A single product is unlikely to challenge our worldview. A political or social idea may shake our belief system to its core. If we are religious, accepting an alternative religious view, or an atheistic view is probably entirely alien to our perspective. A religious person will create a life predicated on belief system.

That is one reason that subjects like abortion are so fervently opposed. To accept the taking of what is perceived as a human life may be too much for some people to bear. For people who oppose firearm ownership, a similar dynamic is at play. That person believes that firearms increase the risk to life and security. Opponents may believe that the lack of access increases the risk to their lives.

This is the reason that it is so difficult for liberals to persuade conservatives and vice versa. It is because our worldviews are so totally different. The Internet, instead of increasing the power of dialogue has reduced it. We find ourselves in echo chambers with people who agree with us. We actively seek them out, join groups of like-minded people. Then we proceed to slap each other on the back, congratulating ourselves on being right about everything.

We argue using our own worldview and its facts and opinions because we believe that these facts will persuade our opponents. Liberals point to the statistics that show the United States as having the highest gun death rate in the developed world. Conservatives find the argument spurious and irrelevant. Their cherished belief is that guns save lives. This narrative also regards government regulation as stripping away their rights. Neither argument works well for the other side.

So, how do we change that? How do we reach across to opponents and arrive at a consensus? I looked around at a few dozen articles on line to see what the evidence says. I was not encouraged. In the case of cherished religious or political views, much of what I read suggested that changing minds is almost impossible. Political discussions almost never persuade. The same is true of political campaigns. What appear to be intuitive arguments to one side are just not persuasive to the other.

One article in particular contained an intriguing idea. While I found many articles that propose the idea of moral reframing, this article gave a practical example. How do you persuade a liberal to support higher military spending? He suggested reframing it like this, “Through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality”.

My immediate response was, “Exactly”. The author very cleverly reframed the argument to fit in with liberal positions. Liberals hold the qualities of equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable among their most cherished beliefs. By appealing to my innate sense of fairness and equal treatment, the author gained my acceptance and my trust. That single sentence moved me towards his position. Once I had time to digest what he said, I was able to see some of the flaws in the argument. Nonetheless, it made me more amenable to the rest of his argument. Of course, he was just using it as an illustration, but it indicates the power that moral reframing can have on political positions.

The same idea can be used when attempting to persuade someone with conservative opinions. As a group, conservatives are more likely to embrace ideals like patriotism and loyalty, respect for authority and purity. If I were to attempt to persuade a conservative to take action on climate change, I would not frame it in terms of the hardship that we impose on animals, or the destruction of their environment. I might frame it like this, “imagine the world of our parents and their parents, a green, pristine world, filled with animals and forests. This is a world created for us as caretakers. If the Creator returned to see how we care for his creation, what kind of world will we show him?”

This argument appeals to the conservative value of purity and respect for authority. In the same way that I questioned the appeal to my liberal belief, a conservative might question my argument. Yet, we are closer to resolution than we were before. Liberals often accuse conservatives of not caring about some part of the population, be it children or other races or religions. This argument often serves only to alienate others and push us further apart. When we start to acknowledge the position of the people we want to persuade, we are far more likely to make inroads with them. Antagonism only creates more resistance.

I have been guilty of this in the past. I know that. I knew that when I started my argument. We all want to be correct in our judgments. We want to be correct because if we aren’t, it shakes the foundations of all our beliefs. We want that edifice to be built on a solid foundation. We cannot spend a lifetime building an edifice only to find that it was built on sand.

I remember as a child going on vacation to the coast. A religious group was gathered on one part of the beach and they were singing songs. These songs sounded so enticing, a siren song to a young mind. Their entire presence was to entice children like me, and their message was compelling. One of the songs proceeded along these lines, “The wise man built his house upon the rock, while the foolish man built his house upon the sands.” It was catchy, it was simple, and the message stood the test of time.

It is funny the way a single good idea stayed with me for half a century, but that is the power of a persuasive idea. The argument was not framed in religious terms; it was framed as an appeal to a child’s logical mind. And it worked. The idea is still a powerful one. That is exactly the idea that I am proposing. We all believe that our opinions are built on a solid foundation. If those beliefs are challenged, we feel shame that they were built instead on the sand. That is why we fight so fervently to defend those beliefs.

It is only by appealing to the logic, beliefs and values of your opposition that you are able to move them at all. If you use your own foundation, it is, as the article said, as though you were speaking German and your opponent is speaking French. You need to speak the same language. If we are to persuade others, whether it is political, or social, or just persuading someone to buy a product or service, we need to speak their language.

It is still close to impossible to convince someone to change position on something, even when you realize that you need to appeal to different values. You may soften someone’s stance on something and make them more amenable to a counterargument. When that happens, we can try to work together on solutions.

We should listen to the arguments of our opponents and sympathise with their position. This allows people to feel that they have been heard. I have spent a lot of time arguing my own position without giving credence to the arguments of others. I believe that I have lost the attention of others because of this. One way that we help other to compromise is to show that we are willing to change, to modify our stance, and to work with them. It is not easy, but it is necessary if we want to build a stronger union together.

I really want to be able to persuade people, not because I want to be right, but because we need to find ways to work together. When we face each other like boxers in a ring, our only way forward is to beat each other to the ground. If instead we take a walk on the beach and discuss solutions to common problems, we can all emerge as winners in the game of life.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for the best possible life to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.

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