First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers
The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose in 1796, contains the phrase, “He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face.” It refers to the act of injuring one’s self to harm someone else. The phrase has evolved into the warning, Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, which sums up one of the greatest challenges of influence—trying to offer helpful solutions to someone who seems bent on taking the path that is most harmful to themselves. Indeed, it is frustrating to try to influence a good outcome when the other person is clearly incapable of understanding that you are only thinking of what is best for them. If only everyone else would just trust that we have their best interests at heart.
An important factor in whether someone is willing to be guided toward a beneficial solution is how long, and how often, they have thought of this issue before you come along with your ideas. The longer someone has to ponder a problem, the more likely they are to have developed a solution of their own, opening the door to our old friend confirmation bias (the tendency to only seek information which supports our deeply held beliefs). Once confirmation bias has set in, your chances of changing someone’s mind stand as much chance as putting shoes on a snake.
Confirmation bias is much more dangerous than causing people to ignore uncomfortable facts. This all-too-human tendency can actually alter our mental faculties. In the study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, researchers discovered that people with good math skills were only effective at solving math problems when the answer coincided with their political beliefs. For instance, Progressives were only good at solving math problems if the solution to the problem concluded that stricter gun control laws lowered gun violence. (Don’t gloat Conservatives. The research showed that this phenomenon equally affects both sides of the political aisle.) It appears that even the most logical brain function—mathematics—is not immune to emotion. Finding a logical answer to a problem is affected by whether the answer itself is agreeable.
In another study, “They Saw a Protest”: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, researchers showed subjects video clips of protestors, but it was unclear from the video what the protestors were angry about. Some subjects were told the protestors were speaking against the military policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, others were told the protest was against an abortion clinic. Those subjects who supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, rated the protestors as more violent than subjects who agreed with the protestors’ position. Similarly, subjects who supported reproductive rights considered the protestors at the abortion clinic to be more violent.
Confirmation bias affects more than our willingness to accept new evidence, it has the potential to alter our very perception of reality, as well as our cognitive abilities. No wonder an influencer with new and innovative solutions will often contend with brains shuttered behind brick walls of resistance.
It is easy to see why it can be impossible to get someone else to realize that we are working for their own good. The brain values comfort over all else, and nothing is more comfortable than a preconceived notion. A poor influencer will try to overcome this bias with a flood of facts, which is an ineffective method given that research above shows that the brain can easily ignore what it dislikes and recalculate the rest to fit its narrative. This is frustrating when you have spent all that time gathering facts! The poor influencer will also try to impress upon the listener that the solution is really best for all concerned, a position that risks inciting distrust.
The skilled influencer will first lend support to the listener’s position. Rather than arguing over surface issues, she digs deeper until a common cause is found that can provide a foundation for discussion. The skilled influencer also finds a way to ensure that the solution she offers actually supports the goals of the listener, instead of pulling a bait-and-switch to get to the ends she initially planned.
Facts are not facts. The same reality viewed through different eyes creates different pictures. Doing what is best for someone must account for how they see the picture.
An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com