To Change Someone’s Beliefs, Resist the Urge to Debunk

Happy Thanksgiving. Good luck to all who travel. Good luck to all who sit through a dinner with people you fundamentally disagree with about the state of American politics.

Last week, I wrote about Arthur C. Brook’s wonderful column about how to be happy at Thanksgiving. His two rules are:

  1. Resist the urge to debunk.
  2. Focus instead on what you have in common.

Today, I focus on rule number one. Here is a bit on why you won’t succeed in debunking your relative’s beliefs.

You will get nowhere debunking it, point by point. Your job is to set a boundary. You do not have to agree by your silence. Use any of these, as they suit your style:

Not everyone agrees with you that ____. I don’t agree. Let’s talk about something else.

The people you are calling ____ include people like me. I would like you to tone it down, since you are insulting my community. Let’s talk about something else.

There is plenty of information that shows that there is another explanation for the thing you are describing, however, I don’t want to get into it tonight. I’d rather have some fun. Let’s talk about something else.

How can someone related to me believe that? They must be [add your insult here.]

They are not [add your insult here.] They are just being human. We all do it. The fact is that you can’t change another person’s mind with fact.

Brain scan deviceBrain scanning has made it easy to see what happens in a subject’s brain when they hear a statement that threatens their core beliefs. What happens? The emotional center of the brain (called the amygdala) reacts to contradiction of core values the same way that it reacts to physical threat.

You are your worldview. You react in defense of a core belief like you rise to defend your physical self. The more facts the other person piles on, the more threatened you feel. The more threatened, the more sure you become that you are right! Not just you, anyone. Especially, it’s true of the troll on the internet.

Now, here are the facts about why we act like that. 🡨 Read this link. Really. Read it!

Some people do change. How does that happen?

What you learned growing up is often the center of your worldview. People who shift away from those views or values tend to do so in small increments, as other explanations seem to fit more with their experiences. Most of us know someone who grew up liberal and became conservative, or vice versa.

Change doesn’t happen by administering the right set of facts. If people don’t change because of facts, how does change happen? Most of the time it happens because of an ongoing relationship. When someone likes someone else, they are willing to observe and learn from this friend’s experience.

Think about it. It is easier to imagine terrible things about people you don’t know. If you have only Christian friends, it is easier to think that Jews and Muslims are Godless. If you never met a gay person, it is easier to believe that gay people will seduce you to “recruit” you. If you know lots of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and some of them are gay, you probably found out that all three religions have something to do with God and that gay people seduce people they love, not unsuspecting straight people.

Here’s a first-hand account that gives a personal example of change by association. In this blog, Christina H says that she grew up believing that poor people were lazy. As an adult, she changed. Why? Because she had poor friends. She knew their lives; she knew how hard they worked; she heard stories about their set-backs. Christina also wrote that she changed her mind from reading on-line arguments. She didn’t learn from the people on the side opposite her core beliefs; she learned from people who were mostly like her, but a little bit more liberal.

Working for change in people you know

overlapping dialogueIf I believed people were incapable of changing, I wouldn’t have added teaching active bystander intervention to my life’s work. I believe that change happens between people who have some affinity.

There are many people who share some of your core values, but not other values. That is the place where change can happen. Show them, by example, how your life and values make sense. Stories about your life, and your successes will go further than trying to debunk their world views.

People who make relationships outside of their own bubble, even a little beyond it, are part of the solution.

That’s why I teach verbal self-defense and how to stand your ground about your own values with people you know. When you stand up for your values at work, with friends and with family, anyone who hears you could be changed. You won’t know how your story impresses someone else. You can be the person who changes others by showing up.

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