The inspiration for this article comes from a Wisdom App talk I listened to the other day. I disagree with the opinions expressed in that talk, so I won’t call them out by name because my evaluation of their views is slightly negative. Still, I do respect the fact that they had the courage to come out and speak their piece about a subject they felt passionately about.
Ultimately, it wasn’t just their message that didn’t resonate with me. It was also the way they went about delivering it. There weren’t any technical aspects about it that seemed wrong. They were both incredibly articulate, they both had good, strong voices, and they expressed themselves in ways that were easy to follow and understand. No, the issues I found in their talk beyond their opinions is one that so many of us face in communicating ideas.
They felt passionate about their topic, and it was apparent they were seeking to drive change for what was, in their opinion, the betterment of society. The problem was in the way that they targeted their discussion. They targeted a demographic that inherently would be alienated by the sheer fact that they were being targeted at all by these specific people. This is such a fundamental yet common error in attempting to communicate our ideas to people that I wanted to discuss good ways to drive change successfully through effective communication.
So when I’m speaking about something, I try to always be transparent and forthcoming about my background and where I’m coming from; so to that end, as many of you know, I spend a great deal of my time communicating science and the most significant part about communicating science isn’t the science, but rather the communicating.
I have been fortunate enough in my life to have gone through quite a bit of different programs and courses dedicated to leadership communication, conflict resolution, and other related ideas simply because of the nature of the jobs that I have held. And for anybody who has participated in anything of that nature, you come to find out that while each particular style often advertises itself as THE way to communicate or to lead, in reality, they are all valid methods as long as you use them appropriately and in the right situation.
Each of these methods is a specific tool, and the more experienced you become, the more aptitude you have in discerning which tool to use and when. In this article, I’m leveraging my experiences to help guide you to better communication when your goal isn’t just to share an idea but also to drive change. To that end, I will discuss the soft rules of influential communication.
Human beings have several natural tendencies that can lead us to be good and bad communicators. We can be passionate, aggressive, and persistent, especially about things we genuinely care about, and nothing can invoke these emotions more than when we see a wrong in the world we think we can right. When we see these wrongs, we tend to drive in head first like a hammer to stamp out inequalities and injustices, at least as we perceive them. We act as hammers driving our points home; some of us resort to emotional pleas, others to what we consider to be logical facts, and sometimes even a combination of both but either way, we use them as blunt objects driving our ideas directly into the ear canals of those we are trying to influence.
The problem with this is that it butts up against other natural tendencies we, as human beings, tend to have. As a species, we don’t like being told what to do, we don’t like being told how to think, and we really don’t like being told we’re wrong. Humans naturally tend to get defensive when we feel attacked, and it’s really easy to make us feel that way. When we are defensive, we are the furthest away from being able to truly listen to any argument, no matter how valid or accurate it may be.
Ultimately the only thing that can change someone’s mind is themselves. We can give people information and be encouraging, but they have to conclude that what they believe may not be correct on their own, and putting them on the defensive is the most direct way to ensure that won’t happen.
So if you want to drive change in a community, you have to learn how to communicate in a way that doesn’t put people on the defensive, and the first step to doing that is to understand some soft rules for communication. I call them soft rules because, much like the toolbox of leadership and communication I was talking about earlier, nothing ever works all the time for every person in all situations. Still, following these soft rules puts you in a position where if it doesn’t work straight off, at least you haven’t alienated your audience to the point that nothing will work. So here is my first soft rule:
- If you want to drive change, you must resonate with those who can affect the change.
So what does this mean? We are individuals, and while by ourselves, our words can have power; in most situations, change requires action. Our words can have power because they can motivate multitudes of people to take action in a unified way that can result in the change we seek. This was the fundamental error made by the people giving the talk I referred to earlier. They were so passionate about driving the desired change that they didn’t realize they were alienating the people they needed to effect that change.
So the first thing you need to do to Drive change successfully is to identify the demographic with the power to initiate that change. Those are the people you have to motivate, and to motivate, you have to resonate, and generally, this requires finding some common ground. Now this may seem obvious when I say it out loud and when you think about it, but so many times, I listen to people delivering passionate speeches that result in the exact opposite effect they’re seeking. They make the mistake of thinking that everybody has the same values that they have and that everybody has the same desires, and motivations. This often happens because it’s based on a cognitive bias called False Consensus. It’s a pervasive cognitive bias that causes people to see their own behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to the existing situation, and maybe it is for somebody of their cultural background and experiences. Still, if you’re not speaking to people who share that background, you risk misunderstanding what motivates your audience.
Soft rule number 2:
- Don’t fall victim to the Dopamine Reward Loop
Dopamine is a chemical produced in various parts of our brain and is critical to all sorts of brain functions. Dopamine is commonly known as the “pleasure chemical,” where people think it makes you feel pleasure, which motivates you into doing certain activities vital to the survival of the species, like food and sex.. and sometimes not so vital, like drugs and other vices. But research has shown that it goes far beyond that. It doesn’t just create pleasure as a response to a stimulus; it also DRIVES want and desire, causing seek and search behaviors, raises your arousal (by which I mean the psychological definition, not just sexual), and goal-directed behaviors.
So how does this play into communicating effectively, and why can it be bad? Odds are, if you are reading this article, you have created some form of content on some platform. If at any point you have been given positive feedback about how well you demonstrated ideas or how great you articulated arguments, how did that make you feel? If you are like most people, you love it. It’s validation, and validation makes us feel good, which causes dopamine production, resulting in that seeking behavior and looking for more validation. The problem with that is that the people who are most likely to give you validation for your talks are people who already believed what you were saying to begin with.
The danger here is that you begin to alter your communication to cater to the people who are validating you specifically. You begin to deliver your talks at places and times where those people are likely to be, which behaves as an echo chamber. There are a lot of problems with echo chambers that have been discussed in media over the past few years, especially about how it amplifies harmful beliefs, but that’s not the only issue that can occur. If your goal is to drive change, you have to seek out people who don’t already believe the same things you believe. When you begin to alter your message, where you deliver it, or how you deliver it to maximize the validation you receive, you are doing precisely the opposite of driving change, which is falling victim to the dopamine reward Loop.
That brings me to my last soft rule:
- Don’t tell people what to believe; invite them to rethink their beliefs.
As I said earlier, we can’t change people’s minds. They have to change their minds for themselves, and nobody, in my opinion, has stated that so eloquently as Adam Grant in his book, “Think Again” If you haven’t read it or you don’t know who Adam Grant is, I highly suggest you take the time to look him up and learn what he has to say. He talks about how we frequently take an adversarial approach when trying to persuade people. We don’t open their minds, we shut them down, or worse, we rile them up. We cause people to be on the defensive, and we do so by preaching OUR perspectives and prosecuting theirs, or we placate them by telling them what they want to hear without actually changing how they think. We can’t tell people what opinions to have and expect them to change their entire way of thinking; we have to invite them to rethink their views themselves.
Your goal can’t be to change everybody else’s mind because that will never work, but you can seek to have others understand your point of view. The best way to do that is by understanding theirs. Don’t just tell people why you think they’re wrong; ask them to consider why they believe they are right. When you know what motivates your audience, you have a much better basis to find common ground, which is the foundation of successful communication.
Returning to Adam Grant’s book, Think Again, it talks about a study that analyzed the difference between average and skilled negotiators. They found that the skilled negotiators more often related to common ground avoided defending and attacking spirals, and asked significantly more questions of the people they were trying to convince.
Asking genuine questions honestly to understand others’ perspectives lays a foundation of trust, and when you have a foundation of trust, others are more open to the idea that your points could have some merit. Once your audience honestly considers the merits of the ideas you’re presenting, they are far more likely to rethink their own views and opinions.
These ideas are not going to work in every situation. Still, they are general guidelines that can be practiced, and in so doing, you significantly increase your effectiveness in communicating ideas that drive change. You have to resonate with the people who can affect the change you seek, so don’t alienate them. Don’t fall victim to the dopamine reward Loop inherent to getting validating feedback. Speaking to people who already believe what you believe doesn’t drive change. Don’t preach or prosecute people to get them to change what they believe; instead, invite them to rethink what they believe on their own because the only person that can change someone’s mind is themselves.