How to Convince People Who Are Wrong

The secrets of possibly the most important communication skill today


Do you believe that someone is in error and that it isn’t you? Are you fairly certain about that based on carefully considered reasons and factual proofs? Do you want to change the minds of said people in error? Well, good luck with that. You’re gonna need it. A lot. Here are the shoulds and shouldn’ts.

When it comes to facts and people’s thinking about them, there are essentially two kinds of people — people who can appreciate lengthy meticulously crafted logical dismemberments of fallacious arguments substantiated by all the pertinent facts and figures, and on the other side, people who won’t. Which is damn near everybody.

Even worse, the trouble with people who are objectively wrong about something in a big way is that the main cause of them being wrong tends to be their acute lack of ability or willingness to entertain and process complex logical analyses substantiated by all the facts and figures.

And yet, what do “smart people” usually do about that?

After showing a ton of facts and figures and being baffled why it isn’t working, many learned intellectual folks proceed to compound their error in terms of persuasion strategy by insulting the intelligence of the people in error that they were trying to convince, or simply leaving the discussion in frustration, resolved to do their best to ignore the people in error for good.

Chances are that by now you’re starting to get annoyed with my stubborn usage of the term “people in error”, but it is an important distinction. People who got the facts wrong are not necessarily idiots or bad people, nor is it particularly wise to ignore them, leaving them to spiral down deeper into the vortex of factual wrongness, political polarization, and being played.

Because that’s the thing — most of the time, it’s in everyone’s best interest, including the interest of the one in error, to correct the error, as being in error rarely gives anyone what they want. Not trying to help such person is like not trying to help a drowning person not to drown only because they initially assume that you want to drown them instead of helping them and that’s why they decide to fight your attempts at helping them.

Still, nobody who’s basically a decent human being would want such person to drown in that situation, especially not the drowning person him- or herself, only because they’re being difficult. Even if they believed they can breathe under water because someone who wants them to drown convinced them of that, they don’t really want to drown. They just a), don’t think they will, and b), don’t believe you, or that you’re there to help them to begin with.

Secret #1 — Credibility

If you happen to be an intellectual (which is not necessarily a synonym for an intelligent person, btw) you may think you know what I mean by that word. I don’t, if what you thought is that one can attain it by demonstrating expertise. Expertise is not automatically credible to everyone, including many educated people precisely because they do understand academics.

What I mean to say is that you cannot convince someone who’s suspicious of your intentions and has no idea where your knowledge comes from or what it is. To most people, a credible statement is not a statement that has some objective qualities, it is a statement that comes from a credible speaker.

Logical fallacy? Perhaps, but it doesn’t come from an unreasonable place. You have to establish some sort of respectful relationship and rapport with anyone you’re trying to convince reasonably long before you try to convince them of anything. Which is difficult if you genuinely loathe people in error.

The animosity may of course be justified, well earned even, but it shouldn’t be just on the basis of them being in error and things that inevitably come with it, like confidently spouting nonsense. If that’s enough for you to dislike someone, that’s called smug intellectual superiority, which, like willful ignorance or lazy reasoning, isn’t a constructive or reasonable frame of mind.

Once you can manage not being smug or judgmental, also avoid being condescending. In my personal experience, the number one compliment that I receive from people when I’m explaining things to them that they might not understand is that I don’t make them feel stupid or excluded from the conversation. People simply want to be respected, and why not do that?

Once the people in error start perceiving you as one of them despite not sharing some ideas or beliefs in common (because you don’t act all hostile or superior around them), they can begin to believe that your intentions are benevolent. And if you’re alright, maybe it’s possible that you know things.

It really is quite easy to make people warm up to you if you have and display some degree of emotional or social intelligence. It only becomes difficult if the first impression they have of you is through a filter of some very hostile framing, reading you as a member of an enemy group or some stereotype.

That’s something you can only break for you alone by proving to them right away and then consistently that you are an exception to the rule that is affixed in their minds. You may not be able to solve racism, sexism, or religious prejudice overnight, but you can make others disconnect you specifically from what should apply to all people “of your kind”.

However, you won’t achieve that by explicitly arguing about it. You need to predict what their prejudice will make them expect and then zig when their expectation would zag. It’s not equally easy with all kinds of framing because some are more extremely hostile than others, but you can certainly avoid looking like a typical dry ivory tower expert snob that hates god, loves all kinds of indecent behavior, and never worked a day of an honest job, etc.

That of course doesn’t mean being dishonest, since it’s not only unethical, but it will also eventually dissolve any credibility you might have built. It’s again more about respect. Some prominent intellectuals who argue for example about climate change are also outspoken atheist comedians who’s job it literally is to mock religion, after which they expect to persuade the people who’s values they actively insult every time they speak at them.

I’m not saying they should stop mocking religion if they don’t want to, but then perhaps somebody more diplomatic would be better suited for the task. Whatever you think about someone else’s beliefs, there always is a way to convey that without dismissing them harshly as entirely invalid. It’s like the difference between Richard Dawkins saying that faith is a mental illness and scam, and Neil deGrasse Tyson saying he doesn’t want to abolish anyone’s religion, but would draw the line at teaching science in science classes.

Guess which one was accepted as a science advisor by a conservative government — without having to lie about anything or compromise science.

Secret #2 — Simplicity

So, you got them to listen to you and maybe even consider what you say. What do you say? How do you say it? The simplest formulation of this simple rule about simplicity of statements is to simply speak the language of those to whom you’re speaking. Don’t make your message any more complicated or long than it absolutely has to be. Don’t assume they understand what you do.

First, listen. Listen to them before you speak. Listen to the terms they use, the facts and contexts they reference. Then make it your job to learn their terminology and understand their frames of reference. It may include religious or regional proverbs, new age philosophies, conspiracy theories, very individual brands of common sense, and who cares if it’s all irrational.

There’s no single person in the world who’s perfectly logical and without any kind of personal biases and fantasies, I guarantee you that. And when you speak to people, you need to speak to them, not at them. If they don’t believe in math or charts or titles, don’t use them. It’s entirely futile.

If all they believe is that Jesus is the perfect ideal of what all human beings should aspire to, then that’s the only way in which you can formulate any argument with any hopes of getting through to them. They may not be inclined to oppose the oil lobby because of scientific facts, but they may be inclined to oppose what Jesus would oppose. And that’s how they reason.

It’s really not about dumbing things down, since crazy beliefs don’t necessarily require any less brain power than reasonable ones. It’s about learning to say the same thing in a foreign language. It’s again Neil deGrasse Tyson who’s one of the most successful science communicators ever since he started formulating science in the soundbite language of TV and the concentrated wit language of Twitter.

And since simple doesn’t have to equal stupid, who knows, you might actually become a better speaker or writer that way in general and learn something wonderful and fun about the world and people beyond the scientific vision of reality in the process. Good authors are good because they understand people and can reproduce their points of view, because they can empathize even when they vehemently disagree. Science is not anti- that.

Secret #3 — Mental Aikido

Finally, when the people in error let you speak with them and you learn how to do that, you need to know a little bit about how people come to believe in something or let go of a belief. It’s certainly not through force — the more you’re going to insist that they should change their mind and the more you make it clear that changing their mind is what you’re after, the more they’re going to resist, on principle. Walls will be put up with you on the other side.

People don’t want to be told what they have to think, they want to come up with their ideas themselves, or at least feel that way, it’s as simple as that. The difficulty here is ethical, as rational scientific thinkers would like the world to be a place where everyone can discuss things straightforwardly in a direct confrontation while everyone agrees on the debate rules that determine who wins or loses each clash of ideas, each test of a proposition. World disagrees.

In most people’s minds, this kind of confrontation is a personal attack. It requires serious philosophical training to acquire the ability to not base one’s own self-esteem on one’s own currently held ideas being right. We certainly should try to educate people’s minds to be more self-aware and flexible than that from a young age, but so far, majority of adults has never been open to having their beliefs questioned without feeling strongly threatened by it.

Again, no dishonesty is needed or desirable, just a careful, measured, gradual application of honesty. If you imagine your attempt to convince them as a fight, the best fighting style to use would be aikido — trying to use your opponents own momentum against themselves. You need to make them convince themselves, you need your conclusion to be their own discovery.

The closest classical approach in rhetoric that can be used in this way is the modern educational variation of the Socratic method. Try to avoid telling the people in error what the correct answer is, instead lead them to it in a series of leading questions that they themselves will answer. The subtler you can be at this, the more effective it will get — if it feels like a teaching session, wall’s up.

If you want a precise target to aim for, try to figure out what their core values are. Usually, beliefs about things like what causes climate change, how a particular group should be treated, or who’s the better presidential candidate are not at the core of what any given person believes. If it’s possible to lead a given person in error to find out by themselves that believing in a wrong thing conflicts with their own core values, they will reconsider.

Error often comes with some cognitive disonance-like internal inconsistency, and cognitive disonances are not the most stable of mental constructs. It may not work anyway, sometimes nothing does, but it can work. In the case of Christians in particular, they often should want to be good people, kind to neighbors, good stewards of the land, forgiving and just, etc. That can be appealed to, if you understand the stakes of a moral error for a Christian.

Unfortunately, it’s this whole dichotomy of science versus religion pushed by the more eager prominent figures on both sides that undermines the possibility to accomplish such a thing, as it not only prevents mutual understanding and frames each other as enemies, but makes all dialogue inherently confrontational, resulting in everyone feeling threatened and preemptively walling up since they’re expecting to be mindfreaked.

Ultimately, if the attempt at convincing a person in error to change their mind is to be successful in this day and age, infinite patience is required. Even a complete success in the best case scenario will likely take a long time in each individual case, building trust and inching toward the crucial realization, while any misstep can instantly and permanently disrupt that at any point.

The only consolation that I can offer is that people in error are by and large normal people with genuinely good intentions, however misguided they might be. Unbreakably indoctrinated zealots and people rotten to their core for whom there is no hope of internalizing a correction of their error will always be in an extreme minority. All one needs to do is convince more people to let go of their errors than the bullshiteers can convince to keep them.

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