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How to deal with stubborn audiences

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One of the things I am asked most about is how to deal with audiences (or specific people) who are stubborn. You know the type. No matter how patiently you explain things to them, they just won't listen. They dig their heels in, get down behind their defences and simply refuse to accept your logic. To the point where you feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall and wonder why you even bother.

Well before we look at how you might deal with this type of person, we need to understand why they act that way.

Because most of us do that (at least sometimes). We all like to think that we're open minded. That we listen to the various arguments placed before us, weigh them up objectively and decide yea or nay on a rational analysis of the facts. Unfortunately, that's very often not the case.

What most of us do instead is listen to the arguments extremely selectively, looking for evidence that backs up the viewsand preconceived ideas we already have, and completely ignore (or minimize) any that opposes them. At a very basic level, this is what happens when we buy our favorite newspaper or decide which news channel to watch. We don't pick ones that challenge our firmly held beliefs and ideologies and give us a refreshing mental workout by posing alternative views; instead we tend to pick ones that support the political views we already hold.

In the UK, someone with right wing views would rather poke themselves in the eye with a sharp stick rather than read the Guardian, and a left-winger would rather have a caesarean without anaesthetic rather than open The Telegraph. In the USA, most Tea Party members could probably think of several better things to do with the New York Times than read it, and most self-respecting Democrats would have nightmares even thinking of watching Fox News.

And we do the same thing when listening to arguments being presented to us in (e.g.) presentations. We look selectively for facts, data and arguments that support what we already think. As Cordelia Fine writes in her book 'A Mind Of Its Own', "The problem is we act like a smart lawyer searching for evidence to bolster his client's case,rather than a jury searching for the truth . . . Evidence that supports your case is quickly accepted . . . However, evidence that (doesn't) is subjected to gruelling cross-examination."

And don't think this is a function of low intelligence. In 1956 it was shown that exposing a pregnant woman to just one X-ray doubled the chances of childhood cancer, but it took almost 25 years in the US (and even longer in the UK) for this to be accepted as true. Why? Because the medical establishment just didn't want to believe it. The evidence was ridiculed, ignored and subjected to withering criticism (the doctor responsible, Alice Stewart, was even subjected to personal attacks and accused of having become senile!).

In the late 1970s, by which time there was a huge amount of evidence linking pre-natal X-rays with childhood cancer, the US National Council on Radiation Protection actually suggested (I kid you not, this is true!) that the link was there because doctors were X-raying babies they somehow knew had cancer. Presumably through some sort of supernatural prophetic powers.

But even worse, is that we sometimes don't even listen to messages which oppose our views. In the 1960s two behavioral psychologists called Brock and Balloun conducted an experiment where half of the guinea pigs were committed church goers and the other half were atheists. Each group was played a tape recording attacking Christianity, and to it was added a crackle of static, which could be reduced by simply pressing a button. Yes, you've guessed it. The non-believers always tried to reduce the white noise, whereas the religious subjects actually preferred not being able to hear the message properly.

A similar experiment with smokers and non-smokers listening to a message linking smoking with cancer produced very similar results. People literally don't listen to messages that conflict with what they already think.

So how can we get around this natural human tendency? If you're proposing something new to an audience, how do you get them to actually listen to your argument objectively rather than just selectively filter out what they don't want to hear?

Well one way is to use another little idiosyncracy of the brain, which is that people like to be consistent. Put simply, if you can get someone to think of themselves as a generous person, then they are more likely to act generously, because not to do so would be inconsistent with their self-image. If you can get them to think of themselves as being honest, they'll be more likely to act honestly, and so on.

To demonstrate the point . . . When Psychologists Freedman and Fraser asked homeowners in an upmarket, wealthy neighborhood whether they'd be willing to have a 6 feet by 3 feet sign saying 'DRIVE CAREFULLY' installed on their beautifully manicured front lawns, 17 per cent agreed (I was amazed at how high that figure was, but there you go . . .).

With another group, they simply asked them to place a small sticker in their window that said 'BE A SAFE DRIVER.' Because it was such a simple thing to do, virtually everybody agreed. Two weeks later, when they asked them about the 6 feet by 3 feet sign, a whopping 76 PER CENT agreed! That's over THREE QUARTERS!

Why? Because the act of accepting the sticker had caused them to see themselves as caring residents concerned with local safety. They agreed to the second, much larger request because not to have done so would have been inconsistent with their new self-image!

So . . . one way to get an audience to look at things objectively is to get them to think of themselves as being more open-minded than most people. Nobody likes to think of themselves as being stubborn or close-minded. We all like to think we are paragons of objectivity. So if you state this in some way upfront, nobody will ever contradict you. They'll think you're simply stating a self-evident truth. If you can do this, they'll then be less able to ignore your new/radical/opposing viewpoint because to do so would be inconsistent with the complimentary self-image you've just underlined.

Teling the following story as an opener would be one way to do this, although the key to success is the words you use right after it (NB: although this story took place in the 19th century, note the similarities with the X-ray/childhood cancer link mentioned above, and how Dr Stewart was personally attacked just like Ignaz Semmelweis!):

Ignaz Semmelweis was a physician who worked in Vienna hospital in the 1840s. At the time, death rates for women giving birth varied enormously. In some wards they could be 5%, in others as high as 30%. That up to 1 woman in 3 would die in childbirth was accepted with a shrug and the words, 'that's life!'

But Semmelweis wanted to know why the rates varied so much from ward to ward. Now he had no preconceptions about this, just an open mind. And he examined every possible thing it could be - was it diet? Bad ventilation? The color of the paint on the ward walls?

Finally he narrowed it down to who was assisting in the childbirth. You see ... in one ward, where doctors or medical students assisted, the death rates were much higher than when in the second ward, where midwives did. Because unbelievable as it now seems, the doctors and students often came straight from the dissecting rom, where they demonstrated and practiced delivering babies from corpses, to the maternity ward where they did it for real, and the concept of washing your hands for hygienic reasons was completely unknown at the time. A simple wiping of the hands on the coat was deemed sufficient, and having bits of blood and body matter all over your front was almost a badge of honor. It meant you were a 'real' doctor.

In a decision that would save the lives of millions of new mothers around the world, Semmelweis determined that the deaths could be reduced simply by doctors disinfecting their hands before assisting in childbirth.

But was he hailed as hero? Given promotion? Awarded riches and fame? Quite the opposite. His colleagues refused to believe that they could possibly be to blame. They were gentlemen, and the idea that their hands might need washing offended them. Semmelweis was viewed as a country bumpkin with dangerous ideas on innovation.

His ideas were ridiculed, rejected and ignored, and he was driven from Vienna in disgrace, back to his native Hungary, where he eventually died in an asylum. His theories were only accepted years later when Louis Pasteur developed germ theory as a cause of disease, which gave a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis's findings.

The narrow-mindedness of Semmelweis's contemporaries in rejecting a discovery that would save millions of lives just because it conflicted with their ideas of the way the world worked is appalling to us nowadays. So much so that the knee-jerk, reflexive rejection of new knowledge because it conflicts with accepted beliefs is now known as a Semmelweis reflex.

During my presentation today I'm going to talk about a new approach to Subject X. Now a small minority of people I've already discussed it with have - believe it or not - rejected it purely because it doesn't fit in with the 'conventional way' of doing things in this company. In other words, I got a Semmelweis Reflex.

And if you have any advice for me as to how I might deal with that when it happens in the future, I'd be grateful. Because one of the things virtually everyone in the company would agree about the people around the table today is that each of you is probably more open-minded than average . . .

Note that the words after the story are a blatant appeal to their vanity and self-perception. A second (and slightly less serious) way is to use a Fascinating Fact opener which shows that sometimes the things we we know are right, aren't . . . How about this:

I want to start by asking you a question, which is, 'What is James Bond's favorite drink?' On the screen you'll see four possible answers. It could be a) Whisky ........ b) Champagne c) Beer, or d) A martini, shaken not stirred. Can I just see, with a show of hands, how many people think it's A? Ok ... B? C? And now .... D?

It seems the overwhelming favorite is D: a martini, 'shaken not stirred.'

It might surprise you to know that the correct answer is A: whisky ........ Everyone thinks it's a martini, but someone with far too much time on his hands once analyzed all of Ian Fleming's James Bonds books and identified that he drank the famous martini only 19 times, but drank a whisky or bourbon an amazing 96 times. That's FIVE TIMES as many.

And the reason I tell you this is to make a point. Sometimes everyone thinks they know something. They're sure they have the answer. They're convinced they're right (did you notice that example of the rhetorical technique Replication by the way?)....... And yet they're wrong.

During my presentation today I'm going to talk about a new approach to Subject X. Now a small minority of people I've already discussed it with have - believe it or not - argued against it purely because it's not what they 'KNOW' is right. In other words, they've ignored the facts . . . . . and fell back on the security blanket they feel comfortable with.

And if you have any advice for me as to how I might deal with that when it happens in the future, I'd be grateful. Because one of the things virtually everyone in the company would agree about the people around the table today is that each of you is probably more open to new ideas than the average person . . . which is why I welcome your input.


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