I often find myself dealing with an intriguing contradiction in my own thinking these days. On the one hand, I am a political advocate, which means that I spend a lot of time trying to convince people to work on behalf of causes I believe in, few of which find much favor in this administration. On the other hand, most of peacebuilding colleagues make the case that “I” can’t convince “you” of anything, whoever I and you happen to be. You (or I) have to convince yourself (or myself).
There’s a lot of mythology surrounding the second half of that statement that I’ve worried a lot about from time to time during my career.
Yes, you do convince yourself.
But yes, I can help you change your mind.
Therein lies a can of intellectual worms.
As a teacher or as an expert, there are times when I can all but browbeat you into changing your mind—especially if I’m grading your final exam. But, I’m not very interested in doing that. I’m not all that interested in getting you to change your mind today and that have you change it back, for example, as soon as the final exam is over and the grades are in.
Rather, I’m more interested in having those new opinions last, and, more importantly yet, have you take action on those new viewpoints. In fact, I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to do just that. Now, with the Trump administration and the wider increase in support for right wing populism the question of how someone goes about convincing someone else keeps coming up.
That’s led me to look for some general trends that have led people to change their minds in the ways that matter to me as I laid them out in the previous paragraph. Five stand out.
- We all learn differently, so there is no magic formula for convincing other people or succeeding at anything else of that sort. My experience is that I change my own mind and sometimes succeed in getting you to change yours because we start and continue a relationship in which we realize that other is trustworthy, has interesting things to say, is credible, and so on. Without the relationship, you aren’t likely to go where I want, however brilliant my logic or use of evidence might be.
- Public talks (whatever the venue) may be good for grabbing people’s attention but not much more. I’ve given plenty of talks on campuses, at conferences, and at political events. On a good day, I can see people get excited by what I say and some ask me tough questions. A few times, we’ve followed up with a breakfast or some emails. But, far more often than not, we each go home and the relationship peters out.
- In other words, authority and expertise only go so far, something I learned in the classroom. I get plenty of respect because I know a lot and have been around for a long time. However, the most I get out of being an expert or an author or simply old is that people are more inclined to listen to me than they might be with someone half my age, who doesn’t have a PhD, or seems to talk off the top of his or her head.
- I rarely help my case by being particularly preachy. Typically, people I meet already have a pretty good idea about where I stand before I open my mouth. More importantly, I’ve found that most people don’t like people don’t like being told what they should do. Instead, I have the most success when I give the people I work with some new evidence and ideas and some new ideas that let them “connect the dots” in new ways that, presumably, are more congenial to my point of view.
- Last and by no means least, it’s all about building relationships with the people I want to convince. It’s rare that I convince someone that I’m right the first time I try. That’s true of me, too. It usually takes me a while to rethink my point of view and agree with yours. If changing minds takes time, it behooves me to build as strong a relationship with you as possible. And as I do so, it behooves me to give you every reason to find me and my point of view intellectually and personally appealing. In other words, I want to bring you closer to me, not drive you farther away, which tends to happen on those rare when I try to convince you that your initial point of view is foolish—or worse.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.