Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone who holds an opposing view and that person says something to you that triggers your emotional buttons? Suddenly there is a rise of anger and defensiveness that spreads throughout your body causing you to more vehemently defend your point of view.
Anger emerges when your deepest worldviews, values and beliefs are threatened. Your brain is wired to put you in a fight or flight response when you are experiencing any type of threat: emotional, physical, and even intellectual such as those that challenge your core beliefs.
The irony is that the more the person tries to convince you with evidenced-based facts, the more likely you are to dig in your heels and stick to your biases even if they dispel your viewpoint.
This is called the backfire effect so cleverly illustrated in this oatmeal comic strip. Despite the factual evidence, people who feel intellectually threatened will continue to support their pre-existing point of view, regardless if false. Consider when President Obama produced the long version of his birth certificate to validate his US citizenship. Even with proof, there were still people who held onto their belief that he was born overseas.
Our brains strongly dislike holding contradictory thoughts and beliefs. Leon Festinger, the founder of cognitive dissonance theory, suggests that our brains have an internal drive to maintain harmony and consistency in our beliefs and attitudes. When you experience disharmony or dissonance caused by conflicting evidence that clashes with your beliefs and attitudes, you are internally motivated to restore equilibrium. This will cause you to “spin” or skew facts in a way that supports your preconceived beliefs and reduces dissonance.
How do we change someone’s point of view when factual contradictions can actually strengthen an ideological bias and when we have a propensity to avoid internal dissonance?
Four habits to help you in any argument:
1. Listen and understand the perceptions of the other person.
Facts can be perceived in many different ways. Adapt a curious mindset and seek to understand how the person has arrived at their perception even if you disagree with it.
2. Acknowledge emotions.
When fear and anger emerge, people feel that their interests are being threatened. Arguments become centered around personal attacks rather than on issues. Acknowledge the display of emotions and seek to understand their origin. Remember to focus on the issue and not the person.
3. Focus on interests rather than a position.
When you are focused on your position, you will have a difficult time achieving any type of agreement. Your viewpoint becomes more important than the issues. Focus on your common interests. Find common ground and a solution that meets interests of both parties. Generate forward-thinking options that avoid a win-lose mentality.
4. Be fair-minded and objective.
Think of your disagreement as a partnership where you are both hoping to arrive at the best solutions to an issue. When your mindset is stuck in the dichotomy of win-lose, you are stuck in a mindset of “I am right and you are wrong.” This attitude will more likely trigger the backfire effect. Adopt an objective framework that keeps you emotionally unhooked and where neither of you takes things personally.
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Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury