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How Stories Can Change Minds Across Difference

We recently read an insightful piece from the Public Conversations Project, an NCDD member organization, reflecting on a recent radio show on how hard it is to change our minds, and we wanted to share it with our members. We encourage you to read the PCP post below or find the original one here.

Conversations that Open Doors: Reflecting on This American Life

PCP new logoThrough dialogue, Public Conversations Project fosters greater understanding between opposing sides of divisive issues, shifting attitudes and building relationships. This Sunday’s “This American Life” focused on a question that resonates deeply across the schisms of our polarized society: what’s the real likelihood that, on the issues you care most deeply about – be it abortion or same-sex marriage – you’re open to shifting your attitude, or even changing your mind?

The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind

While we typically consider ourselves open to reason, the program reiterated a key lesson of Public Conversations’ training: we consume information mainly that reaffirms our own beliefs. Those beliefs may be inherited from our parents, our education, or our community leaders, but they emanate from our gut, an emotional core to which arguments or debates rarely appeal.

“Even when we receive information that conflicts with our worldview,” said host Ira Glass, “we tend to dig in.”

The Power of Telling Your Story

One thing with the power to counter “digging in” and maybe even change our minds? Personal narrative. The program detailed the experiences of canvassers who went to voters’ homes to discuss the contentious issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, specifically. Rather than rattle off facts or make ideological arguments, these canvassers tried something a little different: they listened, they asked questions, and they told their own story.

The conversations were honest, curious, and surprisingly intimate; one opponent of same-sex marriage asked his openly gay canvasser about when he discovered his sexual orientation. In another community, a Catholic voter spoke about her beliefs on abortion, her faith and her unconditional love for her daughters. After the canvasser revealed that she had had an abortion in the past, and spoke about the hardship of disclosing it to her family, the voter’s position on the issue shifted significantly. Her reported likelihood to vote for unrestricted abortion access started at a zero. By the end of the conversation, her level of support rose to a ten.

The transformative nature of these conversations is rooted in many of the same practices we use in dialogue: compassionate listening, asking questions to learn rather than judge, and telling your own story with sincerity. Of course, whereas the canvassers were unequivocally trying to change minds, the dialogue Public Conversations works to achieve is one that creates space for conflict to be candidly explored, without aiming for compromise or seeking to convince.

“This American Life” also opted not to inquire as to whether any canvassers’ perspectives had altered. Regardless, the story on the whole affirmed our operating principle: conversations have the power to allow for nuance, foster understanding, and shift views.

Difference: The Defining Factor

What makes meaningful shifts possible isn’t just how we talk. To be sure, specific techniques can create new pathways out of the schism of rhetoric and argument.

But it’s also who we talk to; namely, the people who are different from us. The conversation between the voter and the gay canvasser was respectful, nuanced, and open. But just as important, it happened across people with opposing views, deeply felt and clearly acknowledged differences. Among similar voters, conversations with heterosexual canvassers about same-sex marriage or about abortion with canvassers who hadn’t experienced the procedure yielded significantly less substantial changes in attitude, illuminating the revelatory combination of difference and dialogue.

Often, public calls for dialogue do create a space for very respectful, open conversation. But those conversations will inevitably be less enriching and potentially transformative if we don’t actively seek out, invite, and honor the real differences in the room.

Not only can relationships bear the sometimes thorny nature of our differences, our minds can be changed and our humanity deepened, by deeply engaging them – even if avoidance might be our natural tendency. And it’s our tendency for a reason. It involves reaching into the primal kind of scary that is vulnerability: that canvasser had to walk up to the door of someone who might slam the door in his face, and that voter opened the door to a stranger. Even without a vote at stake, even when fundamental disagreements remain after the conversation ends, as they often do, let’s not forget the transformations that can happen when two people see difference – and choose to dive in.

You can find the original version of the Public Conversations Project piece at www.publicconversations.org/blog/conversations-open-doors-reflecting-american-life#sthash.UrzqIC4q.dpuf.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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  1. Dear Roshan,

    I have a suggestion for your blog-post’s format.

    When you insert another author’s writing into your posting, it needs to be more clear which part is attributed to you and which to someone else.

    For example, in the posting above, it would have been more clear if you had kept the author’s name (i.e., PCP’s Jessica Weaver) as it appeared under the article’s title on the PCP’s website:

    Conversations that Open Doors: Reflecting on This American Life
    AUTHOR: Jessica Weaver
    April 29, 2015

    Also, it is easy to scroll down the page and, upon seeing your name and photo at the bottom, to assume that the body of text is coming from you.

    Yes, if one stops scrolling in order to read the very last sentence, he/she would realize that see that only the last sentence is yours.

    To avoid readers confusing you with other authors, I suggest the use of italics and indentation to more clearly indicate the quoted text and, when including an entire article, the insertion of a bold line at its beginning and end.

    best regards,

    Stephen Buckley

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