It is the cause of in-law troubles everywhere. It puts a strain on friendships and causes division in the closest of circles. Without your doing anything wrong, this could even build walls which the nicest of gestures cannot break through. It prevents meaningful conversations about important topics and teaches polite people to discuss the weather instead.
Sometimes, something strange happens when we are talking about new information we have learned. It causes people to feel attacked by us or to become personally offended by us sharing something new we have learned. They stop listening and start defending their past decisions or current position–even if we were not discussing them at all!
Other times, this same phenomenon happens and causes our listeners to go about their lives unchanged after we share some new information. I could talk until I was blue in the face about my greatest passion, but something happens (or rather, does not happen) that causes the other person to act like they had not heard a word. Why is that? What is it?
How People Learn and Make Decisions
In a TED Talk called “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek explains that all human choices and decisions come from our brain’s limbic system (our feelings, emotions, intuitions, instincts, and beliefs) and not from our brain’s neocortex (our thoughts, reasons, rationalizing, evidence, and examination).
Our feelings make a decision before we know the facts, even when we cannot explain why we feel the way we do or why we know something seems funny; this explains the expressions “trusting our instincts”, “going with our gut”, “following our heart”, or “something doesn’t sit well with me.”
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink discusses this same thing; with no rational input or awareness, our subconscious mind quickly processes lots of information and predisposes us towards some choices over others.
Of course, a person can “keep an open mind” and consciously decide to learn a little about the opposing side; but even that decision was first based on a belief or a feeling—perhaps it was a fear that someone else will criticize our ignorance, a fear that we could have been wrong, or a belief that open-mindedness is highly valuable.
Fill the Open Minds
This explains why no one can ever educate another person, and why we can only ever educate ourselves. Before our rational minds are ready to receive more information, our emotional mind has already decided what we believe about it. Any supporting new information is used to rationalize our choice; and any contradicting information will either be given an emotional response (e.g., when a person feels a personally offended, or when a person becomes defensive), or will not be received (i.e., be given an emotionally void response, e.g., when a person shrugs saying “So what?” or “Okay, that’s nice. Next!”). People cannot learn from what you have to say unless they already have a desire in themselves to believe what you are saying and to learn more about it.
When we want to talk about what we have learned, we can remember Sinek’s brilliant advice, “Sell to people who believe what you believe! Don’t sell to people who need what you have!” These are the people who want to listen to what you are saying. They will be open to hearing what you have learned about choices, options, risks, benefits, evidence, and consequences.They will not need to be “convinced” your new information should change their behavior for they have already begun behaving that way.
Inspire Hearts to Change
For those who may “need what we have” but do not believe what we believe, no amount of facts or information can change their minds; but we can try to touch their heart. In a conversation about birth, for example, you can try to inspire their heart to change by a few different ways. You can share what you “know in your heart” to be true about birth—that giving birth is a beautiful experience for the mother and anyone who witnesses it, that giving birth can be the best feeling in the world, that it feels safer to you to do all you can to lower your c-section risk instead of avoiding pain, that it feels right to you to learn how other mothers have given birth without needing medicine to complicate things, and so on. You can describe the emotions you feel about birth—joy, wonder, accomplishment, love, and awe. You can tell how labor made you feel—about the design and function of your body, about the power inside yourself that you never knew you had, about how much more you are capable of doing than you thought you could do, about the best and the worst parts of the whole experience, and how or if you would have done things differently.
If we keep involving our listeners’ emotions and speaking to our listener’s hearts, then their hearts may pick up on our feelings and values. Then they will seek out information to educate themselves just as you have educated yourself. Those are the types of conversations that bring about personal growth. Only after we touch people’s hearts can we inspire change in the world.