Is it possible to change somebody else’s mind? Whether it is in the political arena or at our work place or even at our homes, we regularly come across individuals with whom we do not see eye to eye on multiple issues, who think differently, perform differently and opine differently. Is it possible to change their opinions? In America the Republicans and the Democrats are both patriotic Americans but, on issues more than one, they are as different as chalk and cheese. In India the BJP mocks the secular credentials of the Congress and blames them of appeasing minorities and pamper a particular political dynasty and the Congress in turn labels BJP as Hindu nationalists and anti minority. So with such a huge chiasm in between can there be a common ground where saner minds can meet, discuss and march ahead? This will require a very special art, the art of persuasion.
We are not programmed robots. Each one of us has the ability to think in an advanced and different way from earth’s other living creatures, and that is what makes our world a place full of creativity and progress. However, the intellectual openness we have causes each of us to have different opinions, which inevitably leads to misunderstandings and disagreements between people. This situation often leads to the development of arguments and conflicts in a variety of areas, whether it is strategies to rule our nations or for actions at work or planning a family vacation with a spouse.
Of course, each of us should try to see the other side's logic, but if you are confident in your position, you should not try to aggressively convince the other side by yelling like our parliamentarians do. Instead, you should learn how to become the type of person who knows how to explain their thoughts in a way that you’ll get the other side to see the full picture and understand you.
Have you ever wondered why is it so difficult to get others to accept our opinion? I am of the opinion that even if your argument sounds convincing, the moment you try to prove that the other person's argument is wrong, you’re forcing them to change their mind by embarrassing them and making them admit they are wrong, something which not everyone can easily do. So though the Congress was unquestionably corrupt and inefficient, if the present dispensation keeps on harping on that how can they make them change their mind?
The ideas we raise during discussions may be very good, but because we lack persuasion skills we may not be able to convey them in a way that will get others to agree with us. Most of us lack this ability, and as a result, many discussions can turn into arguments in a matter of minutes. When this happens, we and the person in front of us become defensive. We try to take shortcuts to prove that the other's opinion is wrong, and at the same time to show that we are right. What results is a slanging match, something we see in almost every parliamentary session.
Correcting mistakes almost always leads to failure in the attempt at persuasion. There is a boomerang effect or backfire effect - trying to correct another person's mental error only increases the ambiguity about the truth in his/her head. When someone's deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, their beliefs actually get stronger. In other words, trying to change one's mind by presenting his/her own mental error is useless. People who are "corrected" in their opinion more forcefully reject ideas that come from beliefs that are different from their own.
So how do we convince people and make them see our point of view? In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal said the trick to persuading others is simple; the most effective way to change someone’s mind before disagreeing with them is by pointing out the ways they are right. In his famous article "On the Art of Persuasion", which he wrote even before the field of psychology was invented, Pascal offered 2 simple steps:
1. Recognize the validity of the person's point of view.
2. Lead the person opposite us to discover the other side of his argument.
These steps are based on the fact that each person's opinion has value, so we must first identify the validity of the point of view we oppose and admit that there is some truth in it. We then have to reveal the other side of the argument in a gradual manner, which is to show the person opposite us the facts that were ignored in their argument. Such an approach will not offend the other by dismissing their opinion outright because it will show them another side of their argument. So no one will be disappointed. It makes the person in front of you realize that they have not seen the full picture, instead of emphasizing their wrong judgment.
Let me now take you back to the debate on Goods & Services Tax. The government was banging its head against a brick wall of opposition till it did not give credit of initiating this vital financial bill to the Congress, take them on board, assured them that their reservations were genuine and will be looked into and agreed to a whole lot of concessions. The persuasion attempts usually work better if the other person understands the reasons for their change of mind than if we were to impose it. By initially describing areas of agreement with the opposition, the communicators of the government looked more reasonable and likable individuals, thereby increasing their persuasiveness. By pointing out the ways in which the opposition was right, the government’s interlocutors enhanced their own position and credibility. A good debate which is low on rhetoric high on mutual acceptance and one that generates less heat and more light can , in the long run, change the other person’s opinion.
Whether it is at home or at work, people whose opinion you want to change respond more favourably to suggestions instead of commands. This approach to resolving disagreements can also help you hide your intentions in order to persuade, so you must pay attention to your tone of voice. You have to play the role of a guide rather than a commander, that is, you have to guide the other person to the thought you want to create in their head instead of commanding them to accept it. Pascal also argued ‘people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.’ So the trick of persuasion is to make someone discover our point of view themselves, may be with a little bit of guidance but certainly not by an order or command.
In the age of social media telling a story is perhaps the best way of persuasion. People can often be more easily persuaded by hearing stories than just facts that prove the story they believe is not true and offer them an alternate story. The falsehood is a story and here again rather than ripping that story apart it works better to simply replace the false story with the true one that people can hold onto. For a while, it will probably feel like your arguments are falling on deaf ears. Because beliefs are driven by coherence, people will maintain the strength of their initial beliefs for quite a while. The more information that people get that supports an alternative story, though, the more likely it is that the initial web of beliefs will collapse and be replaced by a new, no less coherent network.
A successful persuasion attempt won’t be achieved only by raising an argument of some validity. To prevent others from becoming defensive during a discussion, one should use a technique that encourages collaboration rather than trying to satisfy only oneself. We should not pre-empt the ideas of the person in front of us, but if we see an error in their way of thinking, we should bring it up and change their mind wisely so that they themselves discover the value in our argument. This is the only way to avoid unnecessary conflicts whether at home or in office or in parliament.