The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People
Most of us would have had bitter experiences debating sensitive social and political issues with our friends only to realise that far from convincing each other, we’ve adversely affected our relationship. This piece in The NY Times is an adaptation from Adam Grant’s new book “Think Again”. Grant, an organisational psychologist at The Wharton School, talks about a technique called ‘Motivational Interviewing’ where rather than trying to change someone’s mind, we help them find their own motivation to change.
“When someone seems closed-minded, my instinct is to argue the polar opposite of their position. But when I go on the attack, my opponents either shut down or fight back harder. On more than one occasion, I’ve been called a “logic bully.”
When we try to change a person’s mind, our first impulse is to preach about why we’re right and prosecute them for being wrong. Yet experiments show that preaching and prosecuting typically backfire — and what doesn’t sway people may strengthen their beliefs. Much as a vaccine inoculates the physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance fortifies the psychological immune system. Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future attempts at influence, making people more certain of their own opinions and more ready to rebut alternatives.”
He then introduces the concept of motivational interviewing:
“You do that by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan.
…The pioneers of motivational interviewing, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, have long warned against using the technique to manipulate people. It requires a genuine desire to understand people’s motivations and help them reach their goals.
…Psychologists find that when we listen carefully and call attention to the nuances in people’s own thinking, they become less extreme and more open in their views….Social scientists have found that asking people how their preferred political policies might work in practice, rather than asking why they favor those approaches, was more effective in opening their minds. As people struggled to explain their ideal tax legislation or health care plan, they grasped the complexity of the problem and recognized gaps in their knowledge.
…In motivational interviewing, there’s a distinction between sustain talk and change talk. Sustain talk is commentary about maintaining the status quo. Change talk is referencing a desire, ability or commitment to making a shift. A skilled motivational interviewer listens for change talk and asks people to elaborate on it.”
In the article, he talks about his experience applying this technique with a friend who has strong views against vaccines.