M ANY’S THE TIME I’VE ARGUED PASSIONATELY ABOUT art , politics , cultural phenomena, and , while we’re at it, thc way to hang a roll of toilet papcr——and morc often than not, my point never penetrates the other person’s thick (in my opinion) cranium. For that matter, I rarely budge from my own position, even when presented with the battery of facts. (“Well, .I was right in a different context” has sprung from my lips.)
SO WHAT DOES IT REALLY TAKE TO PERSUADE SOMEONE? In pursuit of answers, I tracked down Howard Gardner, a Harvard cognitive psychologist, MacArthur “genius” fellow, and author of almost two dozen books. His most recent, Changing Minds, explores how we can do just that.
A S IT TURNS OUT, THE HARDEST MIND TO PRY OPEN JUST MIGHT BE YOUR OWN. “If you ask most people, ‘Are you flexible or rigid?’ they’ll tell you they’re flexible,” he says . “The analogy is, if you ask people whether their sense of humor is better than average, almost everybody says yes. Of course, half of them are going to be wrong,” he notes with characteristic bemusement. “ All of us have areas of what I call fundamentalism. We tend to use that word with reference to religion, but there’s fundamentalism—a commitment not to alter our opinions—in every sphere.” From the war in Iraq to abortion to how to manage money, we find ourselves at loggerheads with others, not listening, just waiting for a pause so we can voice our rebuttal.
Gardner says we need to ask ourselves what fixed notions we’re clinging to, and whether they still make sense for us. “My ex-mother-in-law will never invest in stocks,” he says. “She’ll give you a hundred reasons. The question is, Is she open to the fact that over the past 50 years, stocks have always been the investments that yield the most, as long as you don’t buy and sell all the time?”
Keeping your mind limber requires you to cultivate, if not a taste, at least a tolerance for things you’d just as soon turn up your nose at. “I subscribe to all kinds of publications that cut across the political and scientific spectrum,” he says. “I know if I read only stuff I agree with, I’m not going to learn anything.” But he also suggests looking for relatively balanced arguments. “Nobody watches a Michael Moore film or listens to Rush Limbaugh in order to have their mind changed,” he says. “You watch or listen either because you want to have your prejudice confirmed or because you enjoy getting angry
Gardner highly recommends leaving the comforts of home and talking to people from very different backgrounds. “One interesting fact is that totalitarian leaders almost invariably have not traveled,” he says. “Hitler didn’t travel. Stalin didn’t travel. Saddam Hussein never traveled. I think they didn’t want to have their orthodoxy challenged.”
When it comes to changing someone else’s mind, Gardner says, “the biggest mistake people make is not understanding the other’s fundamentalism, or resistances . Our entrenched habits of mind have been relatively serviceable or we’d have abandoned them. So the important thing is to draw the other person out. I like to say ‘Listen charismatically’” By this Gardner means pay very careful attention and pick up on unspoken cues. “Try to put into your own words tentatively, not threateningly what you think the other person’s concerns are,” he says. “Most people will appreciate your efforts if you say ‘It seems to me you’re saying such and such.’ Then they can answer, ‘Well, no, that’s not exactly what I’m saying.”’
What never works is a direct assault on another’s point of view “When you go in with all guns blazing—you’re wrong you-ve got to see this my way—you’re just producing defensiveness,” he says. Even the most eloquent argument is likely to fail if you don’t have enough insight into the person you’re trying to sway “ The real trick is not to rehearse your speech a hundred times until you get it perfect” — and how often have we all done that, winning imagined debates in our heads—”but to take the perspective of the other person.” Once you understand someone’s resistance, you might decide not to address it directly: “Sometimes it’s better not to talk about the 3oo-pound gorilla,” Gardner says.
Very persuasive people often choose an agreeable point of entry instead: The other day, a colleague told Gardner. “I want to convince my wife to go to New Zealand.” Rather than trying to counter, say, an aversion to an arduous flight, he offered two less-direct strategies: “The first was to find lots of links between New Zealand and what she likes to do in other parts of her life. If she enjoys scuba diving or loves a certain kind of food, that’s one entry point,” he says. The second was a method Gardner calls - embodiment— in essence, becoming the change you want to see. “I said, ‘Pick something you’ve been resistant to and show her that you’re willing to try it. If you’ve refused to socialize with certain people, start to do it. Demonstrate the kind of flexibility you hope she’ll emulate.’
“Another technique I’ve used with a lot of success is to meet up with someone in a different place,” Gardner says . A change of context—which breaks one pattern— can stimulate fresh thinking across the board. “I might plan to take a walk or have a cup of coffee with the person whose mind I want to change. I’ve actually arrang-ed to sit next to somebody on a plane because I knew I could have uninterrupted time and do a lot of listening.”
The older we get, and the longer our neural networks have been in place, the more set in our beliefs we’re apt to become. Gardner’s antidote is to try to occasionally think like a teenager (minus the hormonal meltdowns). “In adolescence, kids begin to consider how the world could be different from the way they’ve thought about it before,” he says. “They have imaginative powers; they can think of utopias and dystopias. Something they considered absolute suddenly becomes one of a number of options. You ask, ‘What are the possibilities?’” he says “You open a wider panorama.
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