I’ve spent a lot of energy over the years learning how to change someone’s opinion. I’ve studied logical fallacies, logic, rhetoric, dialectic, and focused intensily on trying to communicate more clearly and precisely.
So I’m pretty good at it. I feel that if someone is open to changing their mind, and we have a genuine disagreement where I happen to be correct, there is a significant chance that we will be in agreement at the end.
But that’s the problem—this mechanism of change only works if the audience is receptive.
I’ve been thinking recently that it’s time to start focusing on a second component of changing someone’s mind, i.e., observing (and managing) the state in which people are receptive to change.
This second component is critical. I’m imagining a model where only 10% of a chance of a changed mind comes from the strength of the presented argument, with the other 90% coming from the state of the receiver.
If someone is unwilling or incapable of changing his position on a topic then it makes little difference what you say. And if he is open to change, a gentle nudge could result in a complete transition.
So my current thought is that the majority of rhetorical skill during discussion (not debate, because that’s antagonistic by design), should be focused on managing the receptiveness of the receiver, not on building some mythical argument that cannot be denied. When a mind is closed, no such argument exists.
Stated plainly, there are two phases to effectively changing someone’s mind:
- Getting them into a state where they’re willing to do so
- Presenting a decent argument for why they should hold a different opinion
Failing to do the former means that it will be virtually impossible to do the latter. But it’s worse than that. If your receiver’s mind is closed then you can actually strengthen their resolve against your position by continuing to argue—no matter the brilliance of your presentation.
Imagine your argument as a whisper to a friend. The question is not how loud the whisper is, but instead one of the setting, disposition, and activity of the friend you whispered to.
Are you at a metal concert where your friend is in the middle of angrily screaming his own lyrics? In that case both a whisper and a scream are likely to go unnoticed. Or are you instead in an empty library while your friend waits empathetically for your every syllable? This distinction, more than your volume ever could, determines the effectiveness of your words.
My new approach to discussion will henceforth be to gauge the receptiveness of my audience before (and while) presenting an argument. This will not only help my argument to a chance for success, but it will prevent the wasting of time if the recipient is completely closed to change.
As people hoping to change others’ opinions we must also be open to change ourselves. A helpful exercise may be to continually poll oneself during a discussion with the simple question:
Am I truly open to changing my mind on this? Is there anything this person could say to me right now that would change my opinion?
If the answer is “no” you should recognize this in yourself and politely exit the discussion. It’s disingenuous to ask that your audience remain open to change when you are closed to the same.
So this is my new approach to what people commonly call debate: focus on receptiveness as much or more than the argument itself. The problem is not the lack of good arguments. The problem is the lack of people who are willing and able to change their minds.
- There are discussion types, such as evolution not being true, where I believe it impossible for one to remain open to change. If I am being honest with myself, I am not truly open to creationism when I’m trying to convince someone that evolution is real. So I think the model above assumes a fairly sophisticated and synchronized level of discussion between the participants.
- It seems clear that many of the techniques used to create convincing arguments can also be used to foster receptiveness in the audience. This must be done carefully, however, as the moment an attack is detected the shields go up and the potential for change is removed.
- I drew the lightbulb image above. More proud of it than I should be.