When Tim Keller announced he would be stepping down from his New York City congregation —known for its outreach to the religiously unaffiliated—he shared his thoughts on how evangelicals could better connect with skeptics.
“We could do a far better job of patiently listening,” Keller told The Huffington Post. “And we should not talk until we can represent the skeptic’s viewpoint with empathy so that a skeptic friend says, ‘Yes, that is my hang up; I couldn’t have put it better myself.’ Only then should [we] try to . . . recommend the Christian faith to them.”
Keller echoed the conventional evangelical wisdom: “You can’t argue someone into the kingdom.” Both common sense and research confirm this is true; it is very hard to change a person’s strongly held beliefs—religious or otherwise.
But if it seems obvious that arguing is not an effective way to win someone over, it doesn’t stop people from trying. From Facebook to family gatherings, our disagreements regularly erupt into arguments. It’s no wonder people often avoid topics pertaining to politics and religion, in both their digital and social lives. It’s often just too risky.
If we have any hope for healing the divisions in our society, families, churches, and communities, it will serve us well to learn how to have better conversations. And mounting scientific evidence suggests that the secret may lie in the charge put forth by James: to make every effort to be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:19).
Why people resist being persuaded
The problem with persuasion is not just that people are stubborn; people change their minds all the time about all sorts of things. The real challenge arises when someone’s beliefs are tied to their identity. If changing your belief means changing your identity, it comes at the risk of rejection from the community of people with whom you share that identity.
Knowing this, it’s not surprising that people tend to seek out information that confirms a belief and outright reject anything that conflicts with it, says Dan Kahan, a psychology professor at Yale Law School.
“They might not perceive it that way consciously,” he says. But research has shown that this phenomenon—known to psychologists as confirmation bias—is real. Kahan illustrates with a sports analogy: “Fans of opposing teams tend to see different things when there’s a close call,” he says. “And it wouldn’t be good if you stood up on your side of the stadium and said, ‘I think the guy really was out of bounds.’ ”
Being rejected by the group around which we have formed our identity can be painful. Thus, in the face of evidence that runs contrary to our beliefs, it only makes sense that we put up our guard.
It also explains why efforts to change someone’s mind can often majorly backfire. When confronted with information that conflicts with their views, not only do people reject the information, they also dig in their heels and emerge clinging more strongly to their original beliefs than they did before.
Lest anyone think they are immune, research shows this is true for both liberals and conservatives, highly educated and not. It seems that our resistance to changing our minds is human nature.
In 2013, Kahan and his colleagues recruited more than 1,000 Americans to participate in a study. They surveyed participants about their political views and also provided them with a test to assess their math skills. Then came two math-based brainteasers. The first required participants to determine whether a skin cream was effective based on the results of a research study.
Not surprisingly, people with better math skills did better on the brain teaser than those whose math skills were weak.
The second brainteaser was a politicized version of the first: Instead of showing the results of a skin cream study, it presented crime data. In some cases, the data showed that implementing a policy banning handguns reduced gun violence; and in other cases, the data showed the opposite.
There were two major findings from this study. First, when math-savvy liberals were presented with the data that showed the gun violence prevention policies to be ineffective, they were more likely to get the answer wrong, compared with their answers to the skin cream problem. The same pattern was found among math-savvy conservatives in the opposite circumstances. Second, researchers found that people who were better at math were 45 percentage points more likely to get the answer right when it fit with their ideology, compared to a 25 percentage point difference among people with weaker math skills.
The takeaway? People have a tendency to reason with data not to get the right answer, but to get the answer they prefer to be right. And people with strong math skills were the most likely to have this bias.
The theory underlying this work—known as identity protective cognition—can be summarized this way: People’s defense mechanisms kick in when they feel their identity and core values are being threatened, and it can lead them to subconsciously resist information that conflicts with their beliefs.
The power of listening
While it may be hard to change people’s strongly held beliefs, other studies in the field of political persuasion have shown that there are some issues on which people are more amenable to having their minds changed.
In 2016, researchers from Stanford University and the University of California–Berkeley sent canvassers door to door to speak with more than 500 people about transgender rights. They used a non-confrontational, unscripted approach, asking people to simply put themselves in the shoes of a transgender person. For the remainder of the interaction, they focused on one thing: listening. If they spoke, they asked questions that would enable them to better understand the person’s perspective. They spent an average of 10 minutes engaging with people this way. Participants were surveyed before the interaction, immediately afterward, and again three months later. And the findings were compelling: They found a decrease in transphobic attitudes that persisted over several months, suggesting that even a brief conversation—where the canvasser emphasized listening over preaching—was powerful enough to lead people to reconsider their stances.
This study is considered one of the biggest success stories in its field. But the results aren’t entirely surprising, says Diana Mutz, professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania. These kinds of dramatic results, she says, shouldn’t be expected on just any issue. They are likely limited to ideas about which people haven’t already crystallized their opinions.
“Persuading people on issues where they have well-developed opinions is much harder,” she says, pointing out similar research studies where canvassers discussed the issue of abortion—and the listening-focused approach was found to be ineffective at changing people’s minds.
To have any chance of influencing someone’s more strongly held beliefs, Stanford University’s Robb Willer and University of Toronto’s Matthew Feinberg have found that the most important thing to do is to frame your argument around the moral values of the person you are trying to persuade. The researchers arrived at this conclusion by performing a series of six studies aimed at understanding what makes a political argument successful. The team had participants on both ends of the political spectrum try to convince people of the opposite persuasion on issues such as same-sex marriage, universal health care, military spending, and adopting English as the nation’s official language. The research found that the most successful arguments were those where liberals appealed to conservatives’ value of respect for authority, and where conservatives appealed to liberals’ values of equality and fairness.
In both cases, people did not actually change their minds. But they became more open to considering an opposing opinion when this technique—known as the moral foundations theory—was used. The key is understanding what the person’s values are so that you can frame an argument around them. To accomplish this requires listening, asking questions that seek to understand, and showing empathy.
What this means for the church
For Christians who wish to promote unity among believers, be influential in the world, and ultimately lead people to faith in Christ, these findings reinforce the age-old biblical wisdom: Do a lot less talking and a lot more intentional, focused listening.
Patience, gentleness, and kindness will also help.
“People who try to persuade us can feel quite threatening,” Mutz says. “The gentler people can be with one another, the more persuasive they’re going to be.”
Jonathan Dodson is the founding pastor at City Life Church in Austin, Texas, and author of the winner of the 2015 Christianity Today book award for apologetics/evangelism, The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing. He says there’s also a biblical reason to focus on listening: It conveys love.
“A big part of people feeling loved is being asked questions,” Dodson says. Plus, you can’t share Christ with someone in a way that will resonate if you don’t know where that person has been.
Dodson encourages people to follow Jesus’ lead in both affirming a person’s experience and challenging them with the gospel, adding that the order is important: affirm, and then challenge.
“Then the gospel becomes alive and it’s not just a drive-by evangelistic thing,” he says. “You couldn’t find Jesus sharing the gospel the same way twice. And yet somehow we’ve become one-trick ponies.”
Dodson’s view is that Christians need to repent of the desire to get people to simply agree with our doctrine before moving on to the next person. Not only does science suggest it won’t work, but Dodson says it isn’t loving. “The listening-focused approach is more costly,” he says. “But love is costly.”
Christine Herman is a Ph.D. chemist turned public radio journalist and freelance science writer, based in Champaign, Illinois.
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