You finally get up the courage to say what you think about something that is important to you. It could be a social, religious, or political issue, or maybe it’s how you or someone else are being treated. You’ve rehearsed what you want to say in your head. You’ve written, deleted, and rewritten to strike the right tone. You don’t want to sound too accusatory but you don’t want to come off like a pushover either. You want the other person to see where you’re coming from, to be open to your perspective and to have a productive conversation, but all too often it turns into a debate that feels like everyone loses just for participating.
It’s a familiar story and in fact, new brain imaging studies show that logical arguments are unlikely to change minds at all. Given our stubborn beliefs, how can we have meaningful conversations with people who have different views than our own? It’s a crucial question for those of us on the political left. Most of the left tears out their collective hair over how to talk to problematic coworkers, friends, and family who seemingly won’t listen to reason. A critical look at recent psychological studies concerning behavioural change offers some interesting answers. It may seem an unusual comparison, but FBI hostage negotiation techniques use these findings in an interesting way and actually bear strong similarities to our own organising conversations as union activists. Talking union with a work mate is nowhere near as high-stakes a game as hostage negotiation but useful comparisons can be made when attempting to navigate an emotionally charged exchange or dealing with the open hostility of an anti-union co-worker. Ultimately the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the FBI both aim to be effective at engaging with people whose beliefs are different from our own. Both the IWW and the FBI jettison the head-on, logical argumentation approach in favour of “an approach that takes emotions fully into account”. Strange company to be sure, but the truth is an arrow that pierces all persuasions.
What Not to Do
When it comes to changing someone’s mind, or bringing them around to a new idea , not much is as ineffective as head-on confrontation. In fact, a multi-year University of Southern California (USC) study sought to map how our brains react when challenged directly about political beliefs. The results showed consistently emotional responses, including anger, tied to a deep defense of the participants’ very identities. Ultimately, when logical arguments were presented, emotions kicked up, and people were unlikely to change their minds.
Despite believing that we’re rational people who hold evidence-based beliefs, the study shows the opposite.
Consider also a 1979 Stanford University study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that shows how elastic our beliefs can be even when shown direct evidence to the contrary.
The study tested for what authors Charles G. Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper called “the polarisation hypothesis.” This is what they had to say about it:
This “polarisation hypothesis” can be derived from the simple assumption that data relevant to a belief are not processed impartially. Instead, judgments about the validity, reliability, relevance, and sometimes even the meaning of proffered evidence are biased by the apparent consistency of that evidence with the perceiver’s theories and expectations. Thus individuals will dismiss and discount empirical evidence that contradicts their initial views but will derive support from evidence, of no greater probativeness, that seems consistent with their views.
In other words, the authors’ hypothesis was that evidence that supports our already-held beliefs is weighted in higher favor than legitimate contradictory evidence.
During the study, participants who both supported and opposed the death penalty were presented with data that contradicted their beliefs. They were then presented with a round of counter arguments, and a rebuttal to the counter arguments. Participants ended up showing that they were even more polarized than they were before the study began–accepting evidence that supported their beliefs, and discounting evidence that contradicted it.
So, if charging through the front door with truth and facts doesn’t work, what should we do?
To answer that, let’s look at what does bring people around to new ideas.
How and When Do Changes Happen?
A 2014 article in Time magazine discusses techniques developed by the FBI’s hostage negotiation unit used to redirect behavior. Time underscores that people are not “fundamentally rational,” and techniques that assume they are will fail. In hostage situations, that’s a matter of life or death. Taking as a starting point what Chris Voss, former head of FBI international hostage negotiations says: “…instead of pretending emotions don’t exist in negotiations, hostage negotiators have actually designed an approach that takes emotions fully into account and uses them to influence situations, which is the reality of the way all negotiations go.”
To go from start to finish in a hostage situation negotiators follow this outline:
- Active Listening: Listen to their side and make them aware you’re listening.
- Empathy: You get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel.
- Rapport: Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you.
- Influence: Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action.
- Behavioral Change: They act. (And maybe come out with their hands u
Time looks more deeply at FBI techniques for active listening–a method that most of us leave out entirely when talking with others whose opinions differ from our own. This method also assumes that conversations are much more effective when we get the other person talking about what they care about.
The following are some active listening techniques used in hostage negotiation situations.
- Ask open-ended questions: You don’t want yes/no answers, you want them to open up.
- Effective pauses: Pausing is powerful. Use it for emphasis, to encourage someone to keep talking or to defuse things when people get emotional.
- Minimal Encouragers: Brief statements to let the person know you’re listening and to keep them talking.
- Mirroring: Repeating the last word or phrase the person said to show you’re listening and engaged. Yes, it’s that simple — just repeat the last word or two
- Paraphrasing: Repeating what the other person is saying back to them in your own words. This powerfully shows you really do understand and aren’t merely parroting.
- Emotional Labeling: Give their feelings a name. It shows you’re identifying with how they feel. Don’t comment on the validity of the feelings — they could be totally crazy — but show them you understand.
There are some great takeaways in these techniques. Notice that this approach is the exact opposite of what most frustrated leftists wind up doing. How often do we go into a conversation with a goal of building trust? Telling someone what they should care about, or why they’re wrong, no matter how diplomatically, will shut down the conversation and leave both parties wondering why the other doesn’t understand their point of view. Get the other person talking and actively listen to what they care about. This is how the IWW does it.
What We Teach Organisers: The Basics of Conversation
It may seem ridiculous to think that we would need to be taught how to talk to others, but the IWW’s organising conversations are more than just shooting the breeze with friends. Putting a little thought beforehand into how we engage others can get big results.
The active listening techniques used by the FBI’s hostage negotiation unit show another organisation’s approach that also assumes that conversations are based on emotion, not logic. Both organisations go into a conversation wanting a certain outcome. For the FBI, this outcome is putting the gun down. In the case of the IWW organiser, this outcome is joining the union. Both approaches understand the need to meet the other person where they’re at, how to actively listen to the other person, and how to move forward from there.
To be an organiser is to have conversations that allow the other person to open up about what’s really going on with them. Just like the hostage negotiation techniques, we want to let the other person really tell us what’s going on, from their perspective. If you ask any worthwhile organiser what the most important part of their work is, they will all tell you the same simple but surprisingly difficult thing: listening.
Let’s look at some other basic concepts that the IWW teaches. Leftists take note.
The fundamental building block of good organising is building relationships. The one-on-one conversation is how we do it. One-on-ones are the exact opposite of idle workplace chit-chat. They are focused conversations with an end-goal in mind.
Since organising is ultimately about building power to make change, many people immediately think that they need lots of people to join their cause. They’ll pass out flyers and leaflets to anyone who will take one. The idea is that the flyer, probably advertising a meeting or event, creates an opportunity for the organiser to have further conversations and then develop a relationship with the recipient of the flyer or leaflet. Do this once or twice and you’ll notice who, if anyone, shows up to your meeting: people who are already politically engaged. This approach also gets the order wrong by asking people to turn out for something before they really know who’s asking them. Are you more likely to go to an event when your friend asks you specifically to go to or when you receive an impersonal email blast in your inbox?
Importantly, a one-on-one conversation also sets up a space where the other person can feel comfortable to speak candidly and you can do your most important work: listening.
To “agitate” is not the same as to “antagonise.” We spend a lot of emotional energy pushing away the things that bother us at work every day. You know you’ve touched a sore spot when someone says “I’d rather not talk about it”—a common response to talking about work when we’re not on the clock. Imagine what kind of toll it takes day after day to gloss over things that we don’t like but don’t know what to do about. Polite conversation would have you avoid talking about what the other would rather ignore. Agitation insists on deeper conversation and focuses on what’s really going on. Crucially, when we agitate , we don’t just piss off the other person by reminding them how much work sucks (for instance) and then walk away.
Agitation is the point in the conversation where you ask open-ended questions that give your coworker the space to talk about what’s going on with them on a personal level. You’re certainly not using their precious time outside of work to tell them what you think their issues should be. What do they really care about? Why? Yes, it may be frustrating that the paychecks bounce regularly, but what is it about their paycheck bouncing that is frustrating for them ? How do they personally relate to the issue? You may be one question away from your coworker sharing that they were counting on that paycheck because they had a trip planned with their kid . What’s going on every day at work and in life is what needs to be talked about if you want to make a connection with your coworker.
It’s important to keep in mind that you’re not just collecting information on your coworkers, though. This is an opportunity to affirm what your fellow worker is sharing with you and for you to share too. This isn’t just about getting something from someone else. Have you thought about how these issues affect you too? Trust is built-in the give-and-take of sharing what’s real. Why would you expect someone to trust you later, when the stakes are high, if you haven’t established trust in the little things first?
Agitation without education is irresponsible. An organiser does more than just highlight the problems that come up during agitation. We all already know that there are problems at work; that’s why we spend so much energy trying not to think about it when we’re not there. Now that those uncomfortable realities have been agitated to the surface, what next?
We aren’t therapists. We don’t listen to people’s problems so we can offer an individual therapeutic fix. The IWW trains workers to become organisers who educate their fellow workers about the how to change things for the better by acting collectively.
When beginning the education part of the conversation, we ask questions like:
- “Ideally, what would you want to see here?” We ask this question to get our coworkers to imagine how things could be different. Normally we think of work as totally static and unable to change. Now is the time to begin imagining something else.
- “If the boss is the one who can resolve this problem why do you think they haven’t yet?” We ask this to illustrate that the problems they described earlier are likely due to an imbalance of power, with us workers on the wrong end of the deal.
- “What would happen if just you went to talk to the boss about this? What do you think would happen if 5 of us went together and asked him to resolve this?” We ask these questions to help our coworkers imagine using collective action to get the boss to fix the issue(s).
The organising approach to conversation isn’t a magic wand. The reality is that when people’s beliefs change it usually happens very slowly. Engaging in that kind of process with someone takes a lot of conversation, a lot of patience, and honestly, it’s emotionally demanding. But this is the approach that’s been proven to work and it’s what needs to be done for liberatory politics to flourish beyond the small group of people who already agree with us. Now, stop wasting your time arguing and go organise.
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