What I’m Reading – Changing Minds

To resolve a dispute, one or more people need to change their minds.  Negotiation and mediation involve techniques to help people do just that.

Obviously, this can be very difficult.  People have reasons for their positions and they may not change them easily.

This post focuses on two approaches for changing minds, which are highlighted in a recent NPR TED Radio Hour podcast.  Wharton Professor Adam Grant, the author of Think Again:  The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, provides very practical advice to help people make better decisions.  Smith College professor and civil rights advocate Loretta J. Ross argues that, when people feel offended, they generally should call the other person in instead of calling them out.  She is the author of the forthcoming book, Calling In the Calling Out Culture: Detoxing Our Movement.

Thinking Again

Think Again is a best-selling book written for a general audience.  It is full of vignettes from Prof. Grant’s experiences in his personal life and as a consultant as well as a ton of empirical research.  It includes 30 pages listing sources he refers to, so you can read more about his ideas.  He has a charming, enthusiastic tone, which really comes through in the podcast and the audio version of the book.

Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s webpage:

Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.  In our daily lives, too many of us favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.  We listen to opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.  We see disagreement as a threat to our egos, rather than an opportunity to learn.  We surround ourselves with people who agree with our conclusions, when we should be gravitating toward those who challenge our thought process.  The result is that our beliefs get brittle long before our bones.  We think too much like preachers defending our sacred beliefs, prosecutors proving the other side wrong, and politicians campaigning for approval – and too little like scientists searching for truth. Intelligence is no cure, and it can even be a curse: being good at thinking can make us worse at rethinking.  The brighter we are, the blinder to our own limitations we can become.

He notes that not thinking again, perseverance (often called “grit”), is “one of the most celebrated engines of success … that can play an important role in motivating us to accomplish long-term goals. … [But] “grit may have a dark side.  Experiments show that gritty people are … more willing to stay the course in tasks at which they’re failing and success is impossible. … There’s a fine line between heroic persistence and foolish stubbornness.  Sometimes the best kind of grit is gritting our teeth and turning around.”

The book is divided into three parts.  The first part focuses on how people can open our own minds.  The second part describes how we can encourage others to reconsider their views.  The third part describes how to create communities of lifelong learners.

There’s a section at the end listing 30 “actions for impact,” which summarize his recommendations.  They include:

  • Define your identity in terms of values, not opinions.
  • Seek out information that goes against your views.
  • Embrace the joy of being wrong.
  • Build a challenge network, not just a support network.
  • Don’t shy away from constructive conflict.
  • Question how rather than why.
  • Ask “What evidence would change your mind?”
  • Acknowledge common ground.
  • Have a conversation about the conversation.
  • Complexify contentious topics.
  • Don’t shy away from caveats and contingencies.
  • To create learning organizations, abandon best practices.

Calling People In

In today’s polarized world, it can be especially hard to disagree without being disagreeable.  Rather than listening with an open, sympathetic mind, people quickly and harshly criticize others too often.  Advocates for advancing social justice and conservatives sometimes “call out” people they believe have acted improperly.

In a New York Times essay, I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic, Prof. Ross writes that “there are better ways of doing social justice work.”  She advocates building “restorative justice processes to hold the stories of the accusers and the accused, and work together to ascertain harm and achieve justice without seeing anyone as disposable people and violating their human rights or right to due process.”  She has a rich, insightful voice full of experience and wisdom.

Here’s an excerpt of this article:

I wonder whether today’s call-out culture unifies or splinters social justice work, because it’s not advancing us, either with allies or opponents.  Similarly problematic is the “cancel culture,” where people attempt to expunge anyone with whom they do not perfectly agree, rather than remain focused on those who profit from discrimination and injustice.

Call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others, or for powerful people beyond our reach.  Effectively criticizing such people is an important tactic for achieving justice.  But most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses.  They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.

Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted.  People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic maw of the cancel culture.  Shaming people for when they “woke up” presupposes rigid political standards for acceptable discourse and enlists others to pile on.  Sometimes it’s just ruthless hazing.

We can change this culture.  Calling-in is simply a call-out done with love.  Some corrections can be made privately.  Others will necessarily be public, but done with respect.  It is not tone policing, protecting white fragility or covering up abuse.  It helps avoid the weaponization of suffering that prevents constructive healing.

Calling-in engages in debates with words and actions of healing and restoration, and without the self-indulgence of drama.  And we can make productive choices about the terms of the debate:  Conflicts about coalition-building, supporting candidates or policies are a routine and desirable feature of a pluralistic democracy.

In another article, Speaking Up Without Tearing Down, she focuses on how instructors can use “calling in” techniques in the classroom.  Here’s an excerpt from that article:

Calling in is a technique that does allow all parties to move forward.  It’s a concept created by human-rights practitioners to challenge the toxicity of call-out culture.  Calling in is speaking up without tearing down.  A call-in can happen publicly or privately, but its key feature is that it’s done with love.  Instead of shaming someone who’s made a mistake, we can patiently ask questions to explore what was going on and why the speaker chose their harmful language.

Call-ins are agreements between people who work together to consciously help each other expand their perspectives.  They encourage us to recognize our requirements for growth, to admit our mistakes and to commit to doing better.  Calling in cannot minimize harm and trauma already inflicted, but it can get to the root of why the injury occurred, and it can stop it from happening again.

Calling in is … not a useful response to those who intentionally violate standards of civil conversation.  When powerful people use bigotry, fear and lies to attack others, calling out can be a valuable tool, either for the individuals they seek to oppress or for bystanders who choose to interrupt the encounter.  When people knowingly use stereotypes or dehumanizing metaphors to describe human beings, their actions victimize targets and potentially set them up for violence.  Calling out may be the best response to those who refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they encourage or who pretend they are only innocently using their right to free speech.

But, if call-ins can occur without demanding undue emotional labor or allowing space for hateful behavior, this approach offers a way forward that increases the potential for learning – particularly in activist and academic spaces.  This practice works especially well when allies call one another in or when leaders, such as teachers, use it to model speaking up without losing the opportunity for learning.  By teaching our students how to call one another in, we’re providing them the tools and skills they need to gather up those who share their privileges, to offer patience and grace when they can, and to facilitate growth – so others won’t have to.

Why Classrooms Are Made for Calling In

Teaching calling-in practices means teaching students techniques to avoid escalating conflicts and to relate to each other in affirming ways.  When we teach call-in skills, we create what we need for ourselves and our students: brave spaces in which everyone understands that people make mistakes, that people come from diverse cultures and languages that may use words differently, and that people should not be punished for not knowing the right words to say.  When we call students out instead of building a call-in culture in the classroom, we contribute to increasingly toxic and polarized conversations.  And we make learning less inviting.

A pedagogy of calling in has the potential to promote safer communication by students and faculty of every color and background and who sincerely hold virtually every different view.  This can lead to greater learning by everyone.

For a calling-in pedagogy to be effective, people may need to change some expectations about acceptable communications.  Students may feel upset by some things that they hear, just as in real life.  Instead of avoiding upsetting statements and punishing the speakers, people can learn to manage situations when others say things they find upsetting.  This is particularly important for law students because lawyers regularly encounter such situations in practice.  Statements that clearly are offensive should be called out, especially when the speakers intend to offend others.  But when people say things that aren’t clearly offensive and they don’t intend to offend others, a calling-in approach would turn these situations into valuable learning opportunities.

The Importance of Good Questioning and Listening

The value of good questioning and listening is a fundamental theme of both authors.  In particular, Prof. Grant recommends “motivational interviewing,” which involves a conversation to help others find their own motivation to change if they want to do so.  He writes:

Motivational interviewing starts with an attitude of humility and curiosity.  We don’t know what might motivate someone else to change, but we’re genuinely eager to find out.  The goal isn’t to tell people what to do; it’s to help them break out of overconfidence cycles and see new possibilities.  Our role is to hold up a mirror so they can see themselves more clearly, and then empower them to examine their beliefs and behaviors.  That can activate a rethinking cycle, in which people approach their own views more scientifically.  They develop more humility about their knowledge, doubt in their convictions, and curiosity about alternative points of view.

The process of motivational interviewing involves three key techniques:

  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Engaging in reflective listening
  • Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change

At the end of the conversation, the interviewer should respect the other person’s decisions and reasoning.  If done well, the subjects develop a better understanding of their own thinking and more confidence in their decisions regardless of whether they change their views.

Motivational interviewing is similar to some facilitative mediation techniques though it doesn’t involve the version of “reality testing” questions that are indirect efforts to get parties to accept the “correct” perception of reality.  Thinking Again cites a study finding that “when conflict mediators help separated parents resolve disputes about their children, motivational interviewing is twice as likely to result in a full agreement as standard mediation.”  (Megan Morris, W. Kim Halford, and Jemima Petch, A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Family Mediation with and without Motivational Interviewing, Journal of Family Psychology 32 (2018): 269–75.)

Both “thinking again” and “calling in” techniques involve genuine caring, curiosity, and openness to learning others’ perspectives rather than a presumption that one knows the right answer.  They offer the potential for growth by everyone in a conversation.

Click here to see what else I have been reading (not limited to textual material).

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