The most common way people give up power is by thinking they don’t have any.
Alice Walker, author and activist
In this part we will start with engaging oneself, and then turn to engaging others.
If you are at this point in reading Social Synthesis, you are most likely already engaged. You are probably active on social media, re-posting some articles, making comments, and giving likes and dislikes to topical posts. You may attend meetings, and write commentaries or your own blog. You may sign and donate to petitions too. All these activities are worthwhile, showing that we are not alone, galvanising people and increasing motivation. However, we will not be focusing here on what to do, which largely depends on personal preferences, but on how to engage in a constructive and fruitful way. Here are some general suggestions:
- Striving for, rather than fighting against. This is a crucial difference between evolution and revolution (in fact, even between successful and unsuccessful revolutions). Fighting against is too often a waste of time and energy, and can also inadvertently alienate a large proportion of the population. Take the New Atheist movement as an example. When its leading figures (such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) focused mainly on attacking religion rather than promoting what is good in atheism, they lost momentum and support.
- Prioritising solutions over problems. Criticising and taking things apart is easy, everybody can do it – which is why everybody is doing it. However, focusing on what is wrong has limited value. Social miracles do not happen spontaneously. Engaging with potential solutions and new ways forward may be harder and riskier (riskier because you open yourself to criticisms). However, such engagements could also be much more rewarding in the long term.
- Making friends rather than enemies: getting into arguments and fights, especially on social media, is also a waste of time. It is better to engage those with whom you already have, or may be able to find, common ground, in order to discuss what to do and how to support each other (unlike online echo-chambers that are typically platforms for raging about what and who is wrong).
In simple terms, there are two prerequisites for a successful evolutionary shift: having something to offer, and engaging others. The latter normally involves communicating with others, so we will lay out here what may be helpful for the ancient art of persuasion.
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Avoiding forceful arguments and lecturing: this is easier said than done, because emotions, particularly frustration, often get the better of us. It is hard to accept that people we relate to really think or feel differently from us – we’d rather believe that they do not hear or understand what we are saying, so we need to get our point across more forcefully or more loudly! But this does very little for winning hearts and minds. On the contrary, it usually alienates others and makes them even more entrenched in their existing views. This is known as the backfire effect or reactance: forceful attempts to persuade can make people feel their freedom is being constrained and they react to this by asserting their original view more firmly. Similarly, raising your voice will not make your argument stronger (unless you are addressing a large crowd of those who already support you). In a nutshell, when debate descends into a win-lose mode it becomes unproductive – even if you win the argument, you are likely to lose the person. On the other hand, creating an atmosphere of trust, openness and safety while confidently but calmly exploring an issue reduces resistance and the sense of threat, which makes others more willing to consider alternatives. But what if the other side argues forcefully or lectures you? They can’t win if you refuse to play the game. Remaining silent may sometimes be more persuasive than any argument.
Listening: we may be eager to share some great ideas, but dominating a conversation is more likely to turn others away than persuade them to our point of view. Even when we listen, we often focus more on what to say next or on gathering ammunition with which to win the argument, which doesn’t actually get us very far. Trying to understand not only the content but also the person (where they are coming from and their experiences) is usually more helpful. You may feel that this can weaken your convictions. To ease such concerns, you do not need to fight back and make a lot of noise; just keep firm inside – empathy does not require sympathy – and carry on listening. This does not mean just remaining silent. There are two interventions that can be really helpful:
- Paraphrasing and summarising have many benefits: they can help you check and demonstrate your understanding and can also reduce defensiveness. Emotional reframing – summarising what the other person said without emotive words – can help calm down a conversation that is getting out of hand, without the need to tell others to calm down. For example, a statement such as ”those idiots are destroying our country with their socialist ideas” can be reframed into “so you think that the changes suggested by the progressives would make things worse”.
- Clarifying and making explicit what is assumed can also be very powerful. For example, if somebody makes the claim “there is no alternative to capitalism”, rather than arguing that there is, you can ask “do you think we’ve already tried all other possibilities?”. Similarly, when people make conclusions and form beliefs on the basis of very patchy or dubious information, you can make it more explicit if you ask them to clarify, explain, or give examples. For instance, if somebody says “the government (or the EU or the UN) is taking our freedoms away!” you can ask “which freedoms exactly do you have in mind?”
Establishing common ground. Persuasion is more likely to work if you manage to find common ground first: look for things that you agree on or have in common (e.g. certain values), and share this with the other person. Ask them what they believe, what they hope for and what they fear. You don’t have to agree with everything – you can empathise with them and acknowledge their hopes and fears without necessarily agreeing with them on causes and ways forward. For example, if somebody says, “high unemployment is the fault of letting too many foreigners in”, do not engage in a discussion about immigration. Instead, you can say,”I hear your worries about your job – I have the same fears”. If they say, “this is socialism”, do not defend socialism or argue that what you are doing is not socialism. Say instead, “You seem to value freedom and everybody getting what they deserve for their honest work. Me too”. Only when you establish some common ground can you think of challenging.
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Challenging is sometimes necessary, but can be tricky. If you just tell people that they are wrong, you will lose them. It is better to start with some of the above suggestions: frame an issue in the context of shared values and what you agree on and mention anything you have learned from the other person. Forget about challenging the conclusions – challenging assumptions or the way of coming to the conclusion (the evidence presented, or logic used) is more productive. To avoid undermining their competence, let them arrive at a new conclusion themselves. Two methods can help with this: so-called Socratic dialogue and (when necessary) simplification. Socratic dialogue consists of making enquiries to tease out assumptions or contradictions. Remember to paraphrase or summarise before asking a question to avoid the impression of it being an interrogation. Simplification can help make complexity more accessible. Here is a condensed extract from a real conversation, as an example:
- There is no global warming.
- Why do you think so? (Inviting the other person to talk about how they have come to that conclusion, rather than going for counter arguments).
- Look how cold it is here.
- So you assume that global warming would make the world hotter everywhere. (Teasing out an assumption on which the ‘proof’ is based).
- Well, I don’t believe what I don’t see.
- So you trust your senses most (paraphrasing). Ok. I wonder… Do you stir the food that you cook?
- Of course, why do you ask?
- Why do you do so?
- What a silly question! (at that point the person may have already realised the link, but doesn’t want to admit it) –To make it evenly hot, right?
- So, if you didn’t stir it, it wouldn’t be hot everywhere? (Making it explicit)
- What’s your point? (Buying time)
- Well, nobody stirs the climate, so we can’t expect it to heat up evenly.
- Maybe God stirs it? (Laughing, and saving face).
- Well, God wouldn’t need to stir if the planet was not getting hotter (laughing together).
It is important not to close in for the kill, but to leave the conversation open-ended and show that you are still emotionally on the same page. In the above example, the person got the point that a cold stretch in one part of the world doesn’t mean that the planet is not getting hotter, so spelling it out was not necessary and would only have made him defensive. To avoid the divisiveness that often results from winning/losing, you may have to forsake the pleasure of gloating in your triumph, but you may win over the person, which is far more important. In many cases, after listening carefully to what the other person has to say, you may even skip the challenge and offer an alternative viewpoint, with something like ”Well, I have a different vision…”.
Describing your vision / making your point. If you hear a statement with which you disagree, such as “This leader will restore our glory and greatness”, rather than challenging it, you could say something like,”I want something better than that” and no more. If they don’t take the bait, just leave that door open – talk about an alternative only if asked for one. If they are curious, and ask “What?”, this is your invitation to explain what that better alternative is. Try to do so in simple, tentative terms. Don’t use jargon or academic-speak, simply use language to which people can relate. It is critical, though, to do your homework. Using valid data to support your case will help others come on board. Remember, however, that people also respond better to stories, metaphors, historical analogies and real examples. Bear in mind, too, that they are more convinced by arguments that address their own, perhaps unspoken, concerns than more general ones on the surface of the conversation. If the other responds with something like, “what you are saying is rubbish and I will tell you why…”, you can always go back to listening and challenging, which can help you improve your arguments. At the end, even if you do not make the other person change their position, they are at least likely to think that you are a pleasant conversationalist, because you listened to them. If so, they may later on, when on their own and with no need to be defensive, start pondering, “perhaps that chap was making sense”. You may never see the fruit of your efforts, but if you plant enough seeds, some of them are bound to sprout.
Recuperate: take care of yourself. These conversations can be exhausting and hurtful, especially with people you care about. You may even feel a sense of despair if you don’t manage to move others (good strategies may increase the chances of shifting people’s positions, but cannot guarantee a desired outcome). The best remedy for this is getting together with like-minded people. Discuss your experience and use it to learn and improve your strategies. If you do so, your encounter was not a waste of time.