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The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.

How to Handle Saying What People Don't Want to Hear


There are a number of obstacles to accepting information. Experts, authority figures, strong affiliations, cherished beliefs, basic needs and desires, identity - all may be threatened by information that threatens rather than supports their position.

They aren't listening

I watch the feedback instantaneously go up and down in focus groups, through electronic dials. When the speaker says something that doesn't sit well, the dials go down. When people like something, the dials go up. It gives the researcher immediate feedback on exactly which messages work and which don't. But it isn't that simple.

One of my first projects in college psychology lab was to try to motivate people to exercise. I planned a very easy walking regimen for just maintaining heart health with just walking across campus, plus very convincing reasons why they should be done. Would any of the test subjects do it? No. I spent a lot of years wondering why.

People in all walks of life, politicians, teachers, religious leaders, marketers, family members, everyone, need to know how to talk to each other without their idea being rejected. For people who speak to the public, it's enough to make them very nervous about what they say. Should you never say anything that may not sit well?

People have mental fences that protect against any information that unsettles the status quo. Simply put, people like to think that they are in control of their world, and that they have a good measure of security, and they have made all the right decisions. They want everything to remain stable. They like the status quo. For example, people will re-elect a bad politician rather than try a new one. They will stay with the devil they know rather than try something new and unknown.

Men definitely don't like things that shake their world - those messages are never well received. Their dials go straight to hell on unsettling information. Young people think they are invincible, so they disregard messages that imply injury. Women like security and anything that makes them more secure, so they are a bit more willing to listen.

People who favor certain things, selectively listen to information that supports their position, while rejecting other information.

People don't like to feel manipulated, so they automatically reject a message when the speaker is coming on too strong, and men especially reject a message when it "tells" them what to do or leaves them no option.

Negative information isn't always received as bad. Negative things are often very motivating, if the person is willing to listen. In political campaigns, negative information about an opponent solidifies the base, no matter how ridiculous the information is. People want information that makes their choice more supportable. Negative campaigning is very often used successfully in campaigns when candidates have a slim margin or are behind - it wins elections.

I don't spend any time talking to people who have their minds made up, or are polarized. It always has the same effect. Any opposing information simply gets nullified with any slight counter-argument, and their position becomes more entrenched. Talking to them only makes it worse. See References for a list of studies confirming this phenomenon.

Hiding negative things is not always a good strategy. Unless people know what the negatives are, they can't recognize the thing that will protect them from it. It's just dirt under their feet until they can see it as a flower. So often the best strategy is to start with negative information, and then tell them the positive solution. This is especially true when the message isn't very antagonistic to cherished beliefs.

When people hear things that unsettle them, it causes "cognitive dissonance." This simply means that it fractures their stable mental world, and then the mind reaches to put their thinking or attitude back together in a coherent whole - something it can live with. Sometimes the mind goes for a new opinion. Sometimes the mind reaches for any slight argument to maintain the status quo, no matter how ridiculous the argument is.

One example of this reaction is information about smoking. To a smoker who likes to smoke and has a long habit of doing it, any information that conflicts is automatically minimized or refuted. Smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States, including from heart disease, cancer, COPD, and a host of other problems. "Well, it hasn't given me cancer." The response is ridiculous, but it salves the dissonance.

You get very similar responses regarding seat belts, which save lives. One police officer told me that in all the wrecks he had seen, there was always safe room if the driver was wearing a seat belt. One chiropractor told me that he wants to be thrown clear of the car. Statistics mean very little. Many people simply say, "When it's my turn to go, there is nothing I can do." That's officially known as tempting God, when you know how to remain safe but don't bother - Christ wouldn't throw himself off a cliff to see if God would prevent his death. Any argument is sufficient when people want to continue doing what they are doing.

What the mind does to resolve the conflict is influenced by several factors that include the emotions the person attaches to that belief or attitude, the credibility of the new information, the way the information is presented (threateningly or as conversation), the status of the listener, and the credibility of the speaker.

The expert who has the turf, usually will not be easily swayed, and may not even listen if his turf is threatened by the new information. Subject matter experts, politicians who have policy positions, evangelists, college professors, researchers, people who have written books - all have an investment in their opinion. Changing their opinion could cause them to lose face or lose standing with their peers or audience. It usually takes someone with more authority to change their opinion first, then they can change without cost.

When one person has more power or authority than another, that person often will not go to the position of listening or being persuaded. This is often true of authoritative parents, the police, scholars in a field, etc. Power is threatened by the threat of being wrong. People don't want to lose power.

When people identify strongly with something, like a political party, or peer group, or religion, they will usually reach for anything that supports their position, and reject everything else. Threatening a person's identity causes an extreme oppositional reaction. Changing their opinion is a useless quest - you don't threaten people's identity.

The person who has beliefs or attitudes shaped by emotional experiences, typically will reject any argument contrary to what he believes or feels. Emotion is far more motivating than knowledge.

If the negative conflicts with their basic needs or desires, it will likely be minimized. Needs come first.

People become very discriminating about who they will listen to. If the opinion is the same as theirs, but the speaker and information is ridiculous, they will still accept it. If the person presenting the negative is not respected or isn't credible, the negative information will likely be rejected.

If the person is creating an identity, such as an early teen, or is creating a new identity when his old belief paradigm fell apart, he is more likely to reject the status quo and people who formed their inner circle, and find new voices. Information that supports the old identity is unwelcome and rejected.

What passes for conversation on topics that people disagree about, is generally people throwing acid barbs and information bombs at each other. It not only doesn't work, it simply helps the polarization process, creating extremists and enemies.

One of the biggest problems is that things like climate change are simply too big for people to comprehend, and seemingly beyond their ability to do anything about. So it is easier just to walk away from that and block it. What you can do is give people things that they can do to accomplish something, such as achievable changes in their lifestyle, and supporting national initiatives trying to make change.

See the References section on the menu on the right, for studies on this topic.

Next: How to be more effective in changing attitudes

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How to be more effective in changing attitudes

Talking to people in a meaningful way can be very difficult. How can you help them recognize pitfalls in life, and the potential solutions, without making them aware of negative things?

Walk in their shoes and start from their position. Similar people aren't threatening to people. Smokers like talking to smokers - it's a way of identifying. Coffee drinkers drink coffee together. Young people prefer talking to young people, and not being "talked down to by adults who don't understand them." People will likely want to agree with you if you are like them. Help them see small changes they can make in their position. People with a more open mind are more likely to respond positively to future information. But don't be a confidence man, who sneaks in with friendship and then takes advantage of friendship. I visited a church recently that had exactly this in mind with an "information program," and admonished parishioners to make friends with people so they could feed them the propaganda they wanted them to believe. It's repugnant, and others can smell it a mile away.

Respect others' opinions. Ask questions about why someone believes what they believe, and listen. Nothing creates a defensive argument faster than being attacked and demeaned by the first person, or have "superior opinion" shoved in their face. Be willing to hear their side and have an open discussion. If you're not willing, why should they be?

Agree to disagree if the conversation ends where it began. Polarization drives people apart - you don't have to hate each other or go to the extreme of branding each other with names.

Accept that you can't change everyone's mind. It helps tone down the intensity of the conversation so it doesn't become an argument, and you don't have to part as frustrated enemies.

Explore where you do agree and what your goals are. Monsters can be reduced to differences of opinion in this way.

Be very careful about using acidic comments that are meant to demean. Calling people stupid, regardless of how it's done, causes people to reject you and your opinion.

Be aware that facts don't change attitudes. Loading people up with facts and hammering home points doesn't work, it just causes frustration by both parties. Attitudes are largely emotionally based, and this means that who people identify with, and the experiences they have had, cement their attitudes in place and cause them to collect supportive information. You can't refute their facts - it's a useless exercise. Try to understand who they identify with, and what experiences they have had. Tell them your experience as a conversation, not a sales pitch. Your experience might help loosen rusty hinges and help them see from your point of view.

See the References section on the menu on the right, for studies on this topic.

Next: Religious conversations

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Religious conversations

The work of the Spirit is involved in religion. It isn't up to us to decide the time and place where people are receptive to religious messages. When the Spirit moves someone to be receptive, that's the time and place to deliver.

You've already seen that when people aren't receptive, then trying to talk to them is useless, and bombarding them with "facts" simply causes them to harden their position. Well-formed arguments are not what changes people's attitudes, they are mostly things that support the already convinced. It is the example set by religious people that is most likely to attract them. Love, friendship, acceptance, caring - these are things that human beings respond to - not shouting messages at them, or insulting them.

The Spirit is at minimum a land of ideas - sometimes competing ideas. People experience these ideas in their lives, and come to understand their consequences. The spirit of love, that is God and those who follow the ways of God, and truth, which stands out when other ideas have proven to be illusions, are the things that make people want to find God. The Spirit leads.

It's sometimes helpful to talk about the negative - the illusions that people commonly follow and the frustration, failure, lack of satisfaction, bad relationships, and even suffering that they produce, to bring them into focus in people's minds when their illusory belief paradigms are shaken. But dwelling on these doesn't attract people - they can learn the similar things from a psychologist. People are attracted by the love (caring), acceptance, and compassion of others. If those things are in place, the spiritual and religious message is more acceptable.

People generally want to find rewarding activities in their lives. Religious institutions often offer social outreach to help communities deal with unemployment, hunger, shelter, clothing, safe areas, play grounds, education, etc. This is a response to the love they receive, not arm twisting.

Apologetics might be necessary for those who are followers, to strengthen them against the elixer of those who hate religion or want to misguide others. But apologetics is not especially helpful for others.

Religion is not a panacea. Don't make false promises. Religion helps make people make better decisions on their path, and improve relationships. It's not a roadmap or a pot of gold. The potholes in life's path can be avoided, but you still have to walk the road, and sometimes road may still be twisty, treacherous, and difficult.

See the References section on the menu on the right, for studies on this topic.

- Dorian

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