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Lisa Earle McLeod: The art of communicating

Have you ever tried to change someone’s mind? 

Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving you tell yourself that you’re not going to engage with crazy Uncle Ned and his racist (or sexist, or liberal or conservative views) again. But then, two, OK four, glasses of wine later, and you’re right there having the same argument you have every year.

The facts are on your side. Yet despite your well-crafted narrative, uttered with a passion that packs more punch than an Adele ballad, crazy Uncle Ned remains unconvinced. He doubles down with his “facts.” His passive aggressive wife, Vera, adds in a heavy dose of eye rolling to communicate her exasperation across the table.

We’ve all been there. The problem isn’t logic; it’s belief. And the problem isn’t limited to crazy Uncle Ned. Our brains are hard-wired to be belief engines. The human mind thrives on opportunities to prove itself right because it reinforces the neural pathways we’ve already created. Conversely, the brain selectively ignores information that conflicts with our beliefs because there is no neural pathway to process it. If the conflicting information gets loud enough, it’s more gratifying, and self-reinforcing, to punish the messenger than to reconsider our beliefs.

Your conversation with crazy Ned is a modern manifestation of a human dynamic that has been impeding progress for centuries. One of the more famous examples of refuting facts to justify belief occurred in 1663.

Galileo Galilei is considered the father of modern astronomy. He was the first to discover that the earth revolved around the sun. Prior to that time, people believed that the sun rotated around the earth. The sun rose in the east and set in the west; it was logical to believe the earth was stationary and the sun rotated around it.

When Galileo discovered the opposite, his new information wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm. The people of Rome believed that they were the center of the universe. They did not take kindly to someone suggesting they were a mere planet rotating around a larger star. Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. His theory known as “heliocentrism” was denounced, and he was instructed to “abandon the doctrine, not teach it to others and not to defend it.” Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment, later commuted to house arrest for the rest of his life.

When the controversy around him was heating up, Galileo wrote a letter to Johaness Kepler, a German mathematician, in which he expressed his frustration that the people who opposed his discoveries refused to even look through his telescope. 

As an astronomer, Galileo was brilliant. But he failed to understand the human psyche. Had he been a student of human behavior, he might have approached the problem differently. Instead of confronting people with the evidence that they’re wrong, he would have been better off asking questions.

The conversation could have gone like this:

• “Where do you think the sun goes when we can’t see it?”

• “I wonder why it works that way; what do you think?”

• “Where might we find information to help us understand more?”

The same model would work with Uncle Ned:

• “Why do you think that?”

• “Where could we find some background on this?”

• “What other things might be at play?”

Asking someone questions suggests that you value their opinion. It invites them to be our partner in further exploration. Telling someone they’re wrong just gets you eye rolls and sighs from the other side of the turkey table. 

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