How Do You Convince Someone Who Wants To Kill You To Change Their Mind?
Explain something to me: how does snatching food from the mouths of homebound seniors make America great again? No, for real. If you voted for Donald Trump, I want to know how you make sense of his newly released budget proposals.
The president wants to eliminate the food program Meals On Wheels. It’s a nationwide program that delivers food to 2.4 million American seniors. How much does it cost us to feed one senior for a year? Good question. It’s the same estimated cost as one day spent in the hospital. One day. For that kind of savings, only cartoon villains would steal food from Grandma. How does the GOP, the Family Values party, defend this sort of fiscal thinking?
Then, there’s Trump and the GOP’s proposed changes to healthcare that would see an estimated 24 million people lose their medical coverage. I’m betting that will affect a great number of Trump’s supporters and/or their extended family members.
Perhaps, you eat food. I’d like to know how reducing the budget for the Food and Drug Administration is a good and wise choice. Do you breath air? Perhaps you can explain his proposed slashing of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, and how that will be good for all those of us who prefer our air to be non-toxic. You see where I’m going with this.
I understand that many of you voted for Trump because you wanted to see someone go to Washington and shake things up. You wanted to see someone take an axe to Big Government. Well, as they say, careful for what you wish for. And please be careful to watch where the chopped-down trees fall. I’m not here to gloat and wave my finger and say, “I told you that man’s a greedy asshole, a goblin shark in a suit, and he doesn’t care about you.” Why say that now? No one profits from that. But how you can defend snatching food from the mouths of homebound seniors? Or deny life-saving healthcare to cancer patients? All so that we can increase our military budget. US military spending is already more than the combined annual military budgets of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France and Japan.
How much military do you need before you feel safe? At this point we’re starving Grandma to buy bullets. Like, there’s no equivocating: Trump’s budget would rather buy more missiles for our military than save Americans lives. But wait, isn’t that the whole point of the military, to save American lives? Trump supporters, I need to understand your thinking. It’s become vital to the lives of millions of people I care about. I’m trying to figure out how to convince someone who wants to kill them to change their minds. In this case, it’s you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, lately. After reading Trump’s budget and following the healthcare debate, each day feels like a heart attack, a slow-motion cardiac infarction. And when I ask Trump supporters, people I know and love, how they can support cutting Meals on Wheels, they keep intellectually twisting and contorting their values to be able to continue to stand behind the man they voted for. How can they possibly advocate for 24 million people to lose their healthcare? Why do they think it’s vital to our budget to buy more missiles but let Grandma starve? How can anyone be that short-sighted and cold-hearted?
The answers vary. They don’t believe in Big Government. They trust the market. They want a strong military. They don’t care about social welfare. After listening to Trump supporters, I have come to the conclusion their rational arguments are justifications for how they feel. Which means how they feel trumps their thinking.
We are emotional creatures, first and foremost. Science will prove that to you over and over again. We begin to feel some kind of way long before we begin to think about it. It works like this: we take in sensory data, which triggers our emotions, that are first processed in our limbic system. Second up, we process those feelings in our prefrontal cortex. It’s home to the “executive function,” it’s the center of the rational functions of our brain. It helps us to make sense of what we feel. So, whatever your senses detect hits the limbic system, then gets processed by the prefrontal cortex. This is important for arguments.
We feel something. We consider what we feel. We rationalize the process: we think about it. Then we might argue about what it means, using our logical capabilities. Which is an emotional argument, that we argue logically. This is also why arguing so often fails. We’re using the wrong language to compel someone to change their mind, and most importantly, what they believe.
Right now, I’m eager to argue, but I’m left to wonder: if I can’t sway my family and friends who support Trump by providing them with facts, statistics, and raw data, then what am I left with? What can anyone use to change their minds? I’ve come to the conclusion one must argue based on what a person believes, not what they think, or can prove.
Theoretical physicist David Bohm once said in a lecture at Berkeley in 1977, that our beliefs determine our reality. Well, he put it more eloquently than that. He broke down the process:
Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.
The process he just outlined in bold strokes is how we make decisions and place value in the world. All of it predicated on what we believe. But how does one form their beliefs? Why do we believe what we believe? That’s key to convincing others to change their minds.
Obviously, we derive our beliefs from our family’s values, from our culture, from our personal traditions, from our ethnic inheritance, and from the spiritual/religious/scientific belief systems we are raised with and use to understand mysteries. However, this is not a process of pure indoctrination. That’s why siblings raised with all the same family, culture, ethnic experiences, brought up with the same class privilege, religious education, and parental instruction, can leave home with such different values and beliefs. All of the outside forces are only half of the equation. The other half is you. How you make sense of all these outside forces determines what you believe.
You may think your religious parents are whack jobs for believing in a Big Guy in the Sky. You may think your ethnic traditions are antiquated. You may think your class privilege is actually weakness, keeping you from understanding others. You may set down your family’s values once you’ve tested them outside the home. That’s the real key. Your personal experiences shape what you believe. Which means the only way to adopt new beliefs is to test old ones. When you find that they no longer work for you, one is far more likely to consider and adopt new beliefs. And we’ve arrived at the bottom line:
Our beliefs are shaped by a network of external influences, and how they mesh with our internal sense of what works best for us. This process is dynamic. Our beliefs will change over time.
However, as demographic data from the Pew Research Center makes abundantly evident, we’re becoming more insular in America. People are now less likely to encounter people from other cultures, walks of life, ethnicities, faiths. How can that be if our nation is also becoming more pluralistic? If we’re becoming less homogenous, surely that means we’re all interacting with more people who aren’t like us, right? Wrong. Trends in housing and neighborhood shifts have created enclaves and islands of sameness. Which means people have less opportunity to interact with others who are unlike them and thus also having fewer opportunities to test their beliefs and change their views. We need the Internet to communicate across our divides now more than ever. And we all know how that’s playing out.
We are at a dire crossroads. I’m not one of those Kumbaya let’s-all-come-together-in-perfect-harmony types. Also I have nothing to sell you. I don’t need you to buy diversity. But for the sake of our future we need to embrace diversity for what it is–a personal life test, a national laboratory of ideas, the cultural friction of difference that leaves both sides smoother and more polished.
If a change to our beliefs requires personal experience, then that’s what we need to increase. How many times have we seen someone on cable news explain how they thought one thing until they sat down and had a conversation with a person whom they previously had stereotyped? It’s now a cable news cliché. But it’s a cliché for a reason. That’s what it takes. A person must experience something to understand it. They need to feel it to be moved by it. They must challenge their old beliefs with new information, reflect on it, and then adopt new beliefs. That’s a process. One that takes time. Right now, we rely on serendipity and chance to be the prime motivators of these sorts of interactions. That process is super slow.
What if we made a meaningful commitment to diversify our experiences? What if we recognized that collisions of culture are something we should encourage? Not in a fetishistic way, not as cultural tourists. That implies a sense of supremacy. You are gazing upon others. You are the subject and they are the object. That implies their life experience is the raw material to improve your life. No, not like that. Instead, we must arrive as equals. You can learn from them as much as they from you.
So, that all said, how does one win an emotional argument?
You must focus on what the other person believes. What motivates someone to support repealing healthcare for 24 million people, some of whom may be family members of the person who supports the repeal?
Ask that person to articulate their beliefs. Ask if starving grandmas and denying cancer patients healthcare squares with their beliefs. Then, you can offer a different belief as opposition. Perhaps you say that how we treat the sick and elderly is a good measure of the decency of our society. We can all agree on that, right? There’s no need to say it with any you-know-better-than-them approach. Remember, we’re all equals. This is key.
If someone thinks they’re losing they’re unlikely to agree with you.
The best way to convince someone to change their beliefs is to let them do it on their own.
Let them win.
Consider germ theory, a radical advancement in humanity’s understanding of the world.
Let’s say you don’t believe in germs because they’re invisible. But I do, I trust the scientists who’ve just discovered these invisible microbes. Following their recommendations, I wash my hands before I eat. My doctors also agree. And they wash their hands before surgery. Because of that they have a far lower incidence of their patients dying. This is a mathematically confirmed result. I could point out that far fewer people die during surgery with my doctors than with your doctors. But you disagree. Even though numbers are on my side. Finally, one day your mother falls sick. Doctors operate and she dies. Thinking it will help, I point out that if the doctors washed their hands it might’ve saved your mother’s life. In your grief, you decide to listen, to consider this fact you’ve dismissed before, because now it has personal meaning to you. We tend to need our own life experiences to be convinced. So you try washing your hands, and you ask your doctors to wash their hands. Boom, you notice as soon as everyone’s washing their hands, there’s less sickness and death. Now you believe in germ theory, too. Even though you never ever actually saw the germs. You don’t need facts to win an argument.
Once a person sees what works better, they’ll likely want to do that, too. Our primate cousins certainly learn by aping one another. To put it another way, it’s unlikely that by losing an argument a person will adopt new beliefs. It works best if you feel like you’re winning, or getting better. If I want you to to change your beliefs, I have to show you a new way. In the example it was something you couldn’t see or detect, invisible germs. Instead, we had to rely on what you could detect, your health, my health, your family’s health, and the discrepancies between them. Then, that new understanding changes one’s beliefs. Far more than the facts ever will.
That’s how you win an emotional argument, by not trying to win at all.
Instead, we must try to provide an atmosphere and opportunity for learning. If you truly have a way that works better, you don’t need to convince someone to adopt it, you just need to show them why they should adopt it and let them convince themselves.
Now, since I don’t understand how anyone can support Trump’s proposed budget, or back his healthcare plans, if you think it’s important that as taxpayers we stop giving homebound seniors food, rather than argue with you or shove a raft of stats and facts in your face, I’m going to listen to you. I ask that you please explain why this is a good and important thing to do.
Meanwhile, I ask that you pay attention. Follow the stories of what happens to seniors who are denied food. Read the news stories about leukemia and cancer patients dying because they’re kicked off their health plan. Watch the cable news segments about families going bankrupt due to a bout of bad luck that required hospitalization. And then, you tell me, if you think that’s the better way to be.
You tell me if that’s the way to make America great again.
It’s not important to me to win this argument; it’s vital that we all live better than this.
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