“White House Press Briefing” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The other day, I saw a clip from an old White House Press Briefing. Reporters were barraging the press secretary with leading questions, reciting statistics that directly challenged the effectiveness of the new policy, and presenting contradictory quotes that the press secretary had said literally the day before.
But the press secretary calmly took in the critiques, acknowledged the flaws, and ended the event by saying “Thank you so much for bringing these problems to my attention. You all have made some really great points today, and maybe we should be rethinking this policy!”
Of course, this video doesn’t actually exist. If there is a clip that does what I just described, please send it to me so I can announce to the world that pigs can fly. The idea is downright laughable!
Now, don’t get me wrong; I am neither praising nor critiquing our current White House Administration or the current Press Secretary. This is merely the nature of being a press secretary, under any administration. A press secretary has absolutely no power to create policy; they are simply told what a policy is, and they must figure out a way to defend, justify, and even praise it, no matter how bad or illogical the policy might be.
And this is precisely how the very flawed reasoning in our brain works, according to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. (See pages 91-92. The press secretary analogy is his.) There are lots of fascinating studies referenced and arguments made in this book that helped me understand how to more effectively communicate with people who disagree with me, but there is one element in particular that has stuck with me: you will be far more persuasive if the other person’s intuition is on your side.
Haidt argues that, when making moral decisions, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (p. 82). In other words, our brain makes instant moral evaluations of situations based largely on quick intuitive judgements, aka our gut feelings. Our brain then engages in post hoc reasoning in an attempt to justify the intuitive judgement we’ve already made. This isn’t to say that strategic reasoning cannot overcome our initial intuition and cause us to change our mind. However, our reasoning’s automatic response is to justify our intuition, right or wrong. It’s like having a press secretary full-time in each of our own heads.
As soon as I realized this, I started noticing my own press secretary at work all the time. I don’t know about you, but as soon as I see cheesecake, my intuition wants it, and wants it badly. And so, my inner press secretary starts working really hard to justify why it’s totally okay for me to have those extra calories. I imagine my subconscious monologue as something like this:
Emily’s Intuition: (sees cheesecake) Yum. I see cheesecake. I need cheesecake. (mouth waters)
Emily’s Press Secretary: Well, you didn’t have dessert yesterday, and you only had two pieces of pizza at lunch, so you definitely have left-over calories. Oh, and you worked out this morning! Go Emily! And it’s such a small piece…It can’t be that unhealthy, I mean, you could be having two pieces, but this is just one! Also, how unhealthy can cheesecake possibly be? I mean, cheese is in the name!!! Cheese is dairy, and dairy is a very important food group.
Okay, clearly I have a pretty big weakness for cheesecake.
But our intuition and inner press secretary don’t just play a role in how much dessert we eat; they play a huge role in how we see other people and their viewpoints, and how other people see us. When a dialogue with another person feels hostile or unwelcoming, your intuition immediately decides that you don’t like the other person and you don’t want to be like the other person, and so your reason works incredibly hard to find a way to rebut their arguments. Your reasoning can overcome this intuition, but the other person will have to present extremely strong evidence in order to change your mind, and it will certainly take you far longer to think through this evidence than the split second it took to form your initial judgment. Not to mention the fact that your inner press secretary is far too busy in “rebutting mode” to actually hear the arguments and think through the evidence.
But, if your intuition likes the person you’re talking to, your reason works hard to empathize with what the other person is saying. Your press secretary’s automatic response is to try to understand their arguments and find a way to agree with them. Thus, if you want to be as persuasive as possible, you need to appeal to the other person’s intuition; you need to recruit their inner press secretary to work for you instead of against you.
So, how can we get a pro-choice person’s intuition on our side?
#1: Welcoming Body Language and a Smile
Your body language is the very first thing a pro-choice person is going to see. If you’re in an outreach situation, a student is almost always approaching the table from across the lawn or down the hallway, so what they see in your body and in your face has already swayed their intuition long before you’ve had a chance to say a word.
So, whenever I am at the outreach table but not currently in a conversation, I take great care to appear as natural and friendly as possible. I often sit on the edge of the table itself, and I wave or say hello to as many students passing by as possible. I am always smiling, and I avoid looking at my phone or having a side conversation with another pro-life advocate if at all possible. I want the intuitions of people walking by to see me as friendly and non-threatening, as someone they could have a pleasant conversation with and want to listen to.
Click here to read more about body language during dialogues.
#2: Common Ground and Common Experiences
If you’ve followed ERI’s work at all, you probably know that we are extremely passionate about helping pro-life advocates to express the genuine common ground they have with pro-choice people. We want pro-choice people to know that we also care about people in poverty, survivors of rape, children in foster care, and a whole wealth of social and political issues. When a pro-choice person hears how much we care about an issue they are also passionate about, even if we may not share the same ideas about how to solve that issue, the pro-choice person realizes that our moral compass isn’t broken, and they are thus more willing to take our views on abortion seriously.
But there is something else I have in common with the pro-choice students on my campus: shared experiences. If I want to appeal to the pro-choice person’s intuition, I want them to see me as being like them; I want them to see me as the kind of person they could sit next to in class, say hello to in the cafeteria, and even be friends with. They need to realize that I’m a college student just like them, and I can help them do that by mentioning small things in conversation that are specific to my campus or unique to being a student. I might ask them how their classes are going today and spend 30 seconds commiserating over upcoming midterm exams. Or they might mention that they’re on their way to lunch, and I’ll excitedly tell them that the cafeteria is serving Tater Tot Hot Dish today, which pretty much every single student can agree is a very exciting day in the world of St. Olaf cafeteria lunches.
By pointing out our common ground and common experiences, I am reminding the pro-choice person that we’re not all that different from each other. If they can see themselves in me in some small way, their inner press secretary is much more open to engaging with my position.
Humor is almost always endearing. We all appreciate someone who can make a good joke and not take themselves too seriously. Now, I am not suggesting that you ignore the topic of abortion and start a stand-up comedy routine at your outreach table. But a small dose of humor sprinkled in your conversation can have a dramatic effect on how the other person’s intuition views you. In my experience, self-deprecating humor or humor about a shared experience is a great way to build some camaraderie in the conversation. If I can make a light-hearted joke about our campus motto or throw in a comment about how short I am, I am sure to get a smile.
Here’s one of the wells I can easily draw from for humor: I’m 5’ ¾”, and I frequently get ignored in the grocery store because the worker “didn’t see me there” from behind the deli counter. Needless to say, I have a lot of “what it’s like being short” material to work with.
Check out this ERI podcast episode on humor in dialogue. Josh Brahm has already booked a professional comedian to come on the podcast soon for a follow-up!
#4: My Reputation the Rest of the Time…
Whether you’re doing outreach on a college campus or speaking with friends and family about abortion, keep in mind that it isn’t just how you act right now that matters. Chances are, students on your campus have been in class with you or one of your club members, they’ve seen you doing outreach before, or they’ve heard about you from one of their friends. They probably already have an intuition about who you are from your previous reputation or the reputation of your club. And if you’re talking with friends or family, you can be 100% sure their intuition already has a well-formed opinion about you. How you treat your friends, family, colleagues, classmates, professors, and administration when you’re not talking about abortion is just as important as how you treat them when you are. Their intuition remembers, and how they’ve viewed you in the past greatly impacts whose side their inner press secretary will be on when you start talking about abortion.
The Moral of the Story: Just Be Nice
You will be far more persuasive, in any dialogue, if you appeal to the other person’s intuition. If a dialogue feels friendly and you seem welcoming, the other person’s intuition will be attracted to you, and their inner press secretary will automatically work harder to find truth in what you are saying.
This is not to say that it’s impossible for someone to be persuaded by fantastic arguments coming from a not-so-nice person. But the psychology of persuasion and how I believe I am called to treat people as a Christian are very much in agreement. Being nice to someone who disagrees with you isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also more persuasive by recruiting their inner press secretary to work for you rather than against you.
And, even better, if you are the first kind, rational, and intelligent pro-life person they’ve ever encountered, you can forever change their intuition about pro-lifers. You’re not only making your own argument more persuasive, but you’re making the next pro-lifer they talk to more persuasive too.
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The post 4 Tips for Changing More Minds originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”
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