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How to Talk to Someone Who Refuses to Accept Reality, According to Behavioral Science

How to have a productive conversation with your local alternative facts fan.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 13 Dec 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Holiday family gatherings are right around the corner, which means you may soon find yourself face to face with that one kooky relative who believes that Obama is a Muslim, 9/11 was an inside job, or NASA staged the moon landing. Is there anything to do in this situation except change the subject and pour another glass of wine?

And how about the less loony but still substantive disagreements about facts? Is there any way to breach the divide if you're faced with someone who simply doesn't accept reality in some important way?

Most of us view these sorts of exchanges as hopeless causes, but not Ohio State University behavioral scientist Gleb Tsipursky. On blog Relatively Interesting he offered an in-depth guide to dealing with denialism, whether it's the outrageous political variety or a more day-to-day case of someone who refuses to pull their head out of the sand.

Facts don't win arguments.

To kick off his useful post, Tsipursky points out that while conspiracy theories might be fringe examples, denialism itself isn't at all uncommon. One four-year study that involved interviews with more than 1,000 board members, found that, when a CEO is ousted, 23 percent of the time it's because he or she was unwilling or unable to accept some basic aspect of reality. When faced with threatening information, people often stick their heads in the sand.

Knowing that you have company in your misery might provide some comfort when faced with a reality denier, but how do you actually confront one? Tsipursky's first and most important bit of advice is to forget facts. The problem is almost certainly one of emotions, not knowledge.

He offers a down-to-earth example to illustrate: "at a company where I consulted, a manager refused to acknowledge that a person hired directly by her was a bad fit, despite everyone else in the department telling me that the employee was holding back the team." Why? "Facing facts would cause the CEO or the manager to feel bad."

And because reality denial is more about identity than information, throwing facts at the problem usually backfires. "Research on a phenomenon called the backfire effect shows we tend to dig in our heels when we are presented with facts that cause us to feel bad about our identity, self-worth, worldview or group belonging," Tsipursky warns.

A better way (sorry, it's not easy)

So if facts can't convince denialists to finally see the truth, what (if anything) can? Rational intelligence won't work but emotional intelligence can. Your goal, according to Tsipursky, should be to make it possible for your friendly local denialist to switch teams without feeling the fool.

"Your goal should be to show emotional leadership and try to figure out what are the emotional blocks inhibiting your colleague from seeing reality clearly. To do so, use curiosity and subtle questioning to figure out their values and goals and how they shape their perception of self-identity," he writes.

First, build trust. You may disagree entirely with your conversational partner, but try to convey to them that you share their bedrock values. Rephrase what they say so they can see you get where they're coming from. In the case of the CEO who refuses to acknowledge a bad hire, you might convey that you too worry about the cost of recruiting. If your uncle won't believe in climate change out of economic concerns, start by explaining you are also worried about unemployment.

Now, you're all set for the real conversational ninja move - you need to show the other party that their beliefs are actually in conflict with their own values and goals, all without making them defensive. It sounds like a tall order, but Tsipurksy insists it is possible. Offering concrete examples of people who have changed their minds can help. So can suggesting that a person's previous opinion was understandable given the information they had at the time.

Your goal is to get that reality-challenged CEO to see that while her worries about the cost of hiring someone new are valuable, but she's actually losing the company more money keeping on a non-performing employee. Your uncle needs to be nudged to see that, while you agree people matter more than penguins, climate change is horrible for both.

Will this work with a truly entrenched flat earther? Is it worth the effort? The answer to both questions may frequently be no, but for less outlandish and extreme denialism, these steps could help you ease your batty aunt or stubborn colleague back into the world of reality, saving not only their sanity, but your own as well.

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