Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 8 – Talking To People You Disagree With

This is part eight of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part seven, visit What You Want To Hear.

We talk with people we disagree with almost daily, people who hold views diametrically opposed to us, people we’re certain are operating under the influence of disinformation.

You need to know how to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because they’re related to you: your cousin may be convinced that fluoride in drinking water is a government plot or your sister may believe aliens have landed. It could be a colleague, your boss, a friend… anyone.

The most important thing to remember when talking with someone labouring under the influence of disinformation, is that trying to prove them wrong is useless. Thanks to a number of cognitive biases that kick in to protect our ego, humans will perform elaborate mental contortions to avoid admitting they’re wrong. In fact, trying to prove someone wrong is more likely to make them double down on their beliefs and dig in.

Psychologists recognize that getting someone to change their mind means creating a safe space for them to consider alternate points of view. That means you need to abandon confrontation and find common ground. For example, with the vaccine hesitant, it’s important to find out why they’re hesitant.

  • Are they worried about their health? Who isn’t? We all want to stay healthy.
  • Are they mistrustful of the government? That’s not unreasonable: every government in history has been less than truthful at some point in their tenure.
  • Did they read something that made them concerned? Reading to inform yourself about important issues is good, even if you don’t agree with the source in this instance.

Recognize that there’s a reason why these people are acting the way they are, even if you think it’s not a good reason, and start from there. Treat any attempt to get people to change their mind as an exercise in negotiation. As with any negotiation, there are a number of tools you can use:

  • Active listening: let the person know you hear them, and try to feed back what you’re hearing.
  • Stay curious: as soon as you’ve convinced yourself you’re right and they’re wrong, or they’re stupid and you’re smart, the conversation is over. Staying curious doesn’t mean you agree with them, just that you’re trying to understand them.
  • Ask questions: why do they think the things they do? Where did they get their information from? Who did they hear it from?
  • Give them a golden bridge: make it easy for them to change their mind by giving them an “out,” a way for them to start a shift their opinion while saving face and without threatening their ego.

We all want to change someone’s mind at some point, or at least get them to consider alternatives. Treating it like a debate never works; treating it like a conversation can.