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Long Reads

Why you should stop listening to your friends’ opinions, and speak to strangers instead

Think you know how you feel about Brexit, Trump and climate change? Think again, says former New York Times editor Trish Hall.

Chances are, you have a lot of confidence in your opinions. Whether you hate Brexit or love it, think Donald Trump is a truth teller or a madman, you tend to think the “other side” is a bit nuts. And that’s totally normal.

All of us are convinced that we are individuals with our own points of view, honed after serious consideration of the issues. However, we mostly take on the ideas of our friends and families without a lot of thought. For example, I’m terrified of climate change, but I’ve never done any of the scientific research myself. I just take the word of those I trust.

We are much more inclined to believe statistics that support our point of view – something that scientists call the confirmation bias – and we’re very energetic in demolishing those that do not. Very few of us escape this tendency to rely more on our tribe than on ‘facts’. Sometimes when people sense that their beliefs are shaking, they push even harder for them.  

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There’s nothing strange about wanting to stick to your people, to your bubble. It’s in our genes, it’s the way we have evolved. We benefit from being members of a group and feeling committed to that group. We all do it, regardless of our politics and our viewpoints. We didn’t evolve to choose what is true. We evolved to choose ideas that are useful – and bonding with a group is extremely practical.   

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Naturally, sticking to our tribe makes it much more difficult for us to have our minds changed, or to change the minds of others. But it’s beneficial to challenge our opinions, and form a well-rounded view of the world. If we are going to become more cohesive and more able to move the world forward, on issues such as climate change, then we need to understand other points of view. We can do that in several ways.

One is to seek out media with which you do not agree. When I was doing research for my new book, Writing to Persuade, I became very aware of how my daily media diet mostly came from liberal sources. I changed that, to challenge myself. Every day now, I get email newsletters from conservative sources that represents politics very different from mine. Sometimes I agree with them and find them worthwhile far more often than I would have expected. 

If you’re like most people, you don’t have many friends who intensely disagree with you, although you might have relatives that send you around the bend. Try to expand the range of people with whom you interact. When you go to buy something at the supermarket, for example, don’t look down at your phone. Look instead at the people around you. Make a comment about something – about the weather, or about how you can’t believe you forgot your reusable bag again.

Connect in both casual and deep ways with people who at first seem unlike you. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. The self-care movement stresses having empathy for ourselves and not berating ourselves for our failures, so extend that to others, too. Find a way to feel what they feel, to connect.

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“It can be fun to be the one person who raises questions that other people are not considering…”

Sean Blanda, who works for a web startup in Philadelphia, sometimes plays a game with his friends that he calls ‘Controversial Opinion’. He asks his friends to say what they really feel and think, and forbids others from arguing. 

He started that game because too many people were afraid to say what they really thought, for fear of being chastised for having the “wrong opinion”. It was a vicious circle – because they were silent, that would reinforce the idea that everyone felt the same way, eliminating the chance for a debate that could be positive. But we should all give this a try – it can be fun to be the one person in the room who raises questions that other people are not considering.

When you really listen to people, they will trust you, and tell you things they wouldn’t otherwise. Two British researchers, Emily Alison, a counselor, and Laurence Alison, a professor at the University of Liverpool, have studied taped interviews of interrogations of suspected terrorists. Their analysis found that being aggressive and pushy did not prompt people to talk. Instead, interrogators who showed respect and curiosity were able to get suspects to talk.

You can start to persuade people when you listen to them. And they can start to persuade you when you listen to them and actually hear them. Your opinions will probably become less rigid but more developed, and smarter. And in the end it will make for a better world because the more widely we range outside of our tribe, the better the chance that positive change will occur. 

Writing To Persuade by Trish Hall is out 9 July (W.W. Norton)

Images: Getty, Unsplash


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