Want to Change Minds? Try Polite Discussion

By Spencer Caron

 

A great majority of individuals accept the paradox that it is noble to hold strong opinions while being a tolerant person.  This paradox is so widely accepted in western culture that a reader may be struck by the self-evident nature of such a statement.   On the one hand, we expect a tolerant individual to hear others’ opinions, respect freedom of expression and be open-minded enough to change opinions if the facts necessitate a change.  On the other hand, we expect the same individual to remain principled and subscribe to laudable belief systems.  Furthermore, if this tolerant, opinionated individual is supposed to be open-minded to other views, at least a small number of persons in society are trying actively to spread their own opinions. How then is the tolerant opinionated individual supposed to behave in the modern day United States?  There is no definitive right answer, but a few guiding principles could go a long way in cleaning up public discourse.  They might help one change some minds as well.  

First, far too much emphasis has been placed on posting articles via social media and making one’s personal accounts a political feed.  Social media “echo chamber” algorithms essentially preclude activist-oriented individuals from being exposed to opposing viewpoints. Moreover, the recent distrust in news, allegations of fake news,  far-left wing students unabashedly promoting censorship, and a rise in anti-intellectual right-wing politics has rendered cable news and political social media content impotent.  Even if the articles one is sharing are from reliable sources, highly unlikely are the odds that a Facebook user will really take time to read the articles one has shared.  If, however, one were to take the effort to talk to a person who holds different opinions, the same content found within the article will have a much larger impact.  “Humanizing” opinions goes a long way insofar as changing minds is concerned.  This very sentiment is embodied in Holy Cross’s ethos: Surround yourself with those who differ from you and you inevitably undergo personal change.  

Second, one’s conversation etiquette has a massive influence on the receptivity of the listener.  Put another way, the same exact message utilizing the same facts and rationale could have disparate impacts depending on the delivery.  Appealing to morality, anecdotes or extensively relying on obscure references are not effective means by which to change someone’s mind.  These tactics become even less effective when they are employed alongside a bellicose delivery, sarcastic remarks or a patronizing tone.  When one enters into a conversation, one has to rationally assume that he or she has reason to believe what they believe.  If this assumption is made, one is much less likely to expect any of the aforementioned style of conversation to effectively change one’s mind.  If one arrived at an opinion by employing logic and reason, then only different logic and reasoning have a chance to alter one’s opinions.  

With this being said, the third suggestion to having a constructive conversation about controversial topics is that one must do their best job to be impersonal about the matter.  Reason being is that humans tend to respond better to objective truths rather than subjective suggestions.  For instance, one is much more likely to stop eating animal products if they are shown video footage of the mistreatment of animals, the environmental impacts of corporate farming and the health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet.  An approach that may actually cause one to be less likely to give up eating meat would be to call that person a murderer who does not care about animals.  This example illuminates a final point.  People should assume that the reason the other person holds a differing opinion has more to do with a different set of facts, rather than a drastically different set of morals.  Most of us agree that animals should be treated ethically, the planet should be protected, and our health is important.  Thus, the different opinions regarding diet has more to do with the dissemination of facts, rather than widely different moral persuasions.  This is why cool polite conversation is superior in every way to factitious opinion-driven rhetoric.  

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