“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” wrote Thoreau as he considered the power of silence and measure in argument.
Our culture tends to mistake volume for authority and hostility with influence. We equate the loudness of someone’s voice to their leadership and jump into shouting matches instead of reasoned discussions.
A behavior that was once limited to conservative politicians determined to stay on the wrong side of history, this mindset now continues to infect more and more parts of our lives.
And nowhere was this more apparent than my town’s recent school board meetings.
A Soon-to-be-Condemned Elementary School
The elementary school that my daughter attends is on the verge of violating building codes. The boiler’s on its last legs, there’s not enough restrooms for the size of the school, and the ceiling tiles need to be rotated so the numerous leaks in the roof don’t cause mold.
In a world where online resources are clearly the future, the school cannot supply kids with enough computers or tablets because the electrical infrastructure isn’t sufficient.
I could go on. There are many more examples. Many more ways that the current school is set up to support an education of 1958 but not 2018.
They need a new school. One that’s designed and built to support a 21st century education. So you’d think the decision would be obvious.
I did. Which just goes to show how naive I was.
And the People Who Don’t Want to Improve It
It turns out that the opposition is fierce. Despite repeated historical warnings of what happens to organizations that stop promoting development, there’s multiple “concerned citizen” movements that are set on derailing the project. Their main gripe? Their kids have already gone through the school system. It was good enough for them. So why should they have to pay for it?
Yet this entitled selfishness manifests itself in many ways. Concerns over traffic patterns. Concerns over child safety. There was even some concern for the freshwater eels that live in a nearby creek.
Yes, the group that threw a welcome parade to invite fracking into the area and the people who refuse to listen to a discussion on common sense gun control are suddenly worried about environmental protection and safety.
Grasping at straws. Any straw will do.
So I decided to start attending the discussions. I wanted to lend my voice to counter the negative ones. But it turns out there’s no need. Because the opposition chose to ensure their own defeat.
All because they were unaware of some advice that’s been around for nearly half a millennium.
Without Empathy, There’s No Commitment
Before psychologists popularized the backfire effect – that tendency where opposing arguments actually strengthen our initial beliefs – French polymath Blaise Pascal recognized it’s impact on persuasion. In Pensées, his masterful collection of 923 meditations, he wrote,
“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”
Long before the various aspects of confirmation bias gained notoriety, Pascal recognized that people are rarely convinced when we push our own ideas on them. He understood that people are much more open to an idea if they’ve contributed to it. He’d also write,
“When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides.”
Before we can gain any lasting commitment, we need to develop a sense of shared empathy. It’s only after both sides can understand each other’s perspectives that we’ll gain a meaningful agreement.
In Never Split the Difference, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss explained that gaining a “Yes” is meaningless without the commitment that comes from someone who fundamentally agrees with your position. A position that’s only gained when each side can empathize with the other’s concerns.
“When your adversaries say, ‘That’s right,’ they feel they have assessed what you’ve said and pronounced it as correct of their own free will. They embrace it.”
Debates Rarely Build Empathy
“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” – Stephen Covey
Winston Churchill once said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” in discussing our tendency for rash opinions and superficial commitments. And in few places is this statement more accurate than a community forum discussing tax increases.
As the “concerned citizens” waged their war against educational improvements, their weapon of choice was not logic but volume. And “alternative facts,” but that’s a whole other topic for a whole other post.
They showed up in force with a barrage of criticism, yelling, and threats, all directed at the school board. The same school board who’s researched the project, developed a cost effective plan to build a new school, and has the sole decision-making authority on building it.
So let me ask you, have you ever been convinced to change your mind by someone yelling at you?
Have you ever changed your mind on a topic when you were forced to repeatedly defend your position?
Instead of promoting understanding and developing empathy, the “concerned citizens” demanded explanations. Instead of looking to understand the board’s reasoning and work on a joint solution, their egos pushed them to make unilateral demands.
All of which caused the school board to repeatedly defend their original position. And instead of working together on a solution, they continued to widen the gulf between each side.
Our Identities Define Us
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” – Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
We’re all defined by the identity that we give ourselves. The picture we have of who we are and what we stand for determines our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
We’re pushed to act in a manner consistent with our identity because we often view inconsistency as a sign of weakness. When someone’s views and decisions are constantly changing, they seem indecisive and unreliable. So whether we realize it or not, we’re inherently biased to behave in ways consistent with our previous positions.
Which exposes the real mistake of the town’s “concerned citizens.” With each demand, they’ve forced the school board to continue to justify their original position. And I can’t think of any better way to anchor a consistency bias than by forcing someone to repeatedly defend their own positions.
“Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”
Or in the profound words Eminem, “I am, whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?”
Empathy Comes from Understanding
“In every negotiation, in every agreement, the result comes from someone else’s decision. And sadly, if we believe that we can control or manage others’ decisions with compromise and logic, we’re leaving millions on the table. But while we can’t control others’ decisions, we can influence them by inhabiting their world and seeing and hearing exactly what they want.” – Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference
In many arguments, our first reaction is to explain our reasoning to the other party, often with increased volume and condescension. But we should know by now that these actions rarely bring any committed change.
Before we can influence someone, we need to understand not just their position, but the views which determine that position. Until we can do that, we’re not working towards a common solution, we’re just further anchoring people into their initial position.
Because while we can’t reason people out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into, we can encourage shared solutions. But this only comes when we understand the perspectives behind their positions. As Chris Voss further described,
“If you can get the other party to reveal their problems, pain, and unmet objectives—if you can get at what people are really buying—then you can sell them a vision of their problem that leaves your proposal as the perfect solution.”
It’s not complicated. But it’s amazing how many people continue to get it wrong.