The Entrenched Opinion – August 2022
First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers
I was talking with a colleague the other day and the subject of COVID-related mask requirements came up. As soon as we broached the subject, I got tense because I knew that we were on opposite sides of the fence on the issue. We did what many people do; we each stated our position and then dropped the matter so we could go home wondering how the other person could be so stubborn. The irony is, even though my expertise is influence, I often employ the same ineffective methods of persuasion that I preach against (influencer, heal thyself). Namely, I state evidence that I think it so compelling that there is no way the other person can deny it. This method fails for a very simple reason. The way to avoid this failure is even more simple.
First, the reason pushing our own facts onto the listener doesn’t work is not because the other person is defending their position on the subject. It is because they are defending their social position. To hold an opinion, but abandon it under pressure, threatens something more important than our opinion on social issues, it threatens our self-image. The human brain values social acceptance over political accuracy. Giving up a belief risks losing the people who stood at our side. When a woman recently told her neighbors that she had re-considered her stance on a sensitive political topic, they said, “You have forgotten what it means to be from here.” That kind of pressure is powerful, and it cannot be ignored when seeking to influence others’ opinions.
The way around this roadblock is deceptively simple, and a bit deceptive. Instead of pushing back against their opinion, convince others that you both share the same view. In an NYU study, participants were given photos of two different people and asked to choose which they found more attractive. The researchers retrieved both photos and said they would give back the photo the subject chose as more attractive. However, the researchers actually gave the subject the other photo. You might think the subjects said, “Hey, you gave me the wrong one,” but no. When asked to explain why they chose that person as more attractive, they explained all their reasons while describing a photo of the wrong person.
The results were the same when subjects were asked to discuss social or political topics. Whenever the subject was asked to defend their opinion, they did so vehemently, even if it was not the opinion they originally held. The social nature of the human brain causes us to be less concerned with what we believe, than who else believes it. Our need to defend ourselves creates a knee-jerk response; rather than admit defeat, we will defend something we never believed in the first place.
This is easy to understand, but not so easy to employ. You can’t just go around switching photos on people or telling them they chose one thing when they really chose another. University studies are a great source of insight, but not always easy to translate into real-world application. However, there is a clear take-away from this research—instead of pushing back against opposition, restate the other person’s position in a way that brings all parties closer to the middle. If they say something is black, and you say it is white, the other person will spend all eternity proving it is black. However, if you say, “I see. So, you are saying there is no black or white on this. Tell me why” you lay the foundation for conversation, and compromise.
However effective, this approach brings up an obvious concern, manipulation. Using manipulation in persuasion risks damaging relationships, but we do have to consider, in light of human nature, whether influence is even possible without a bit of nudging on the influencer’s part. We cannot ignore the fact that we enter into relationships with a need that we must fulfill. The best deals are obviously those that benefit both parties, but even the most mutually beneficial deals are rarely reached smoothly.
In the end, the best way to use this new information is as a reminder to always be on the look-out for techniques of influence that avoid head-to-head confrontation. Rather than state the other person’s position as being in opposition to your own, create a statement of commonality and work from there.
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