For all of our discussion on personal connections, relationship building, and first date evangelism one may ask whether such “hoops” are necessary. After all, what we really need to do is just get the right facts in front of people, right?
Persuasion is Complicated
No, actually. As much as we like to think of ourselves as perfectly rational creatures, the opposite is often true. An interesting longform piece on this from The New Yorker says, among other things, “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.” (They interview several cognitive scientists, and this is a quote from one). A number of things contribute to how we form our views, including social pressure, confirmation bias, competing information sources, and a whole array of emotional and social elements.
Does this mean that truth is irrelevant? Not at all. It only means that persuasion is more complicated than just the facts. As you will learn in any decent persuasive communication course, persuasion includes not only the facts (logos), but also credibility (ethos) and, yes, emotion (pathos). As Nate has written elsewhere, the proper order to use these persuasive elements is first ethos, then pathos, and finally logos. Both cognitive science and personal experience tell us you must earn someone’s trust before they’ll allow you to mess around with their beliefs.
Consider Closely-Held Identities
We hold our beliefs in very personal ways, especially those that are religious or political. Our religious beliefs in particular are tied not just to our statements about reality, but additional identities. We all hold multiple “identities” – just think of the list of one-word descriptors on your Twitter profile. Mine, for example, has at different times included writer, podcaster, husband, father, and even Ravenclaw, among others. Those are all identities. What happens when someone challenges one of your identities? If you are a father, do you become angry when someone denigrates parenthood? If you are a writer, do you become upset when someone says books are irrelevant and archaic?
Like the examples above, religion is a part of our identity: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon. These are all adjectives that each adherent makes part of their identity. I once met a man who built his house by hand over the course of several years. He gathered the lumber himself from the property and lived in a tent for about seven years while he built. He even hand-built a hot tub (also with lumber from the property) to go with it. He’s lived there for decades now and is quite proud of it. Imagine if the first time I met him, I walked into his house and said, “You’ve done everything wrong.”
That’s what it feels like for your worldview to be criticized by someone you don’t know. But what if the same sentiment is communicated with more sensitivity by a close friend who knows the man, knows his property, and knows his home? And what if it’s communicated in a manner that is non-confrontational and maintains relationship? The chances of the man reconsidering his views about his house will be greater.
When appealing to someone to change something as personal and deeply held as their worldview, we have to speak to the whole person. But that’s not what we tend to do. We sometimes dump facts and information all over them like gatorade on an athlete. The problem is we’re not on a football field. We’re in their living room, and now we’ve stained the carpet and they’re yelling for us to get out. So maybe just offer them a cup first. Talk to them. Get to know them. And once you’ve convinced them that you can sit in their house without breaking the china, then you can start making some progress.