“Speak truth to power!” – a common mantra to any justice seeking, accountability lovin’, truth teller out there. A typical scenario would go like this, Citizen A decides to get active around a certain issue, maybe they have a personal experience with it, maybe it just strikes their passion. No matter; Citizen A usually tries to get at least a bit educated about it. Citizen A then often tries to spread awareness and information about their selected issue. They have a laundry list of facts and figures that support the necessity to change the behavior of others – let’s say they want you to write a letter to Congress or stop buying bottled water. Citizen A might have an exhaustive list of facts derived by the best of scientific methods and all information points to the need for you to do this change in behavior, what is it that could actually make you do this new behavior?
When you decide to be influenced and begin the new behavior, you have embodied the behavior, you have made it your own. It’s a pretty big accomplishment to get someone else to embody a behavior that wasn’t originally their idea; it’s powerful. That power can effect how someone shops, votes, or chooses to be active around a certain issue. The way you connect with this person, is through shared frames.
In the previous example of Citizen A, a laundry list of facts is not enough. You have to gain the trust of your audience. You do this by sourcing your information from a variety of sources, preferably as highly respected and balanced as possible. If that is not possible, you make it clear what your motivations are for the discussion. Is is out of genuine concern? A pleasant feeling of superiority? Are you wanting to protect someone? Are you standing up for an important value? Be honest with yourself and if the reasons are petty, face up, they will become apparent anyway. Many times, when you say out loud what your true motivations are for attempting to persuade someone, something amazing happens, you become more human and more vulnerable in their eyes – and empathy happens. We are often afraid of appearing weak, but when we allow the other person an opportunity to empathize with us, we activate their brain to think like ours. This must be authentic; integrity is unmistakeable.
When Citizen A gets Citizen B to think a certain way, Citizen B has most likely accepted Citizen A’s frame. Once a frame is accepted, all of the supporting evidence is also adopted and people speaking from inside that frame automatically have more credibility because they have accepted the same premise. The climate crisis is a clear example of an issue where lots of facts are hurled about, but those facts do nothing without an acceptance of a premise. This especially makes progressives crazy. There are two basic premises to accepting the climate crisis, #1 the earth’s climate is changing in such a way that it threatens human existence and #2 humans themselves are impacting this major change. If your opponent does not accept these two ideas, no amount of factual stockpiling will help your argument.
The progressive value of empathy and it’s implied duty of responsibility towards fellow and future humans drives the idea that right now we must be conscientious for the planet – and our – sake. For a conservative, they look to authority and tradition. Since there is no tradition of worrying about the consequences of human behavior on the planet, there is no blueprint of authority to follow; the thinking is a bit like, “well pollution was good enough for my parents so it’s good enough for me”. Additionally, many conservative Christians believe that any sort of major impact on the planet falls into the realm of God – not humans. For them it is arrogant to think that humans are causing “acts of God” such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and mass poisonings; God could “fix” everything in a moment, on a whim, so we must be getting what we deserve in terms of God’s judgement. What makes matters more complicated is that some conservatives think that the negative environment consequences – flood, drought, storm – is brought on as a judgement on our social behaviors and values.
The approach you take must first make them accept your frame – sometimes you can fit their frame inside of yours. In the case of climate change, stewardship is a good pivot point – in Christianity we are called on to be good stewards of the earth, which calls attention to responsibility laying at the feet of humans for the well-being of life on the planet. This is the work in which you – the person making the persuasive argument – must break out of your perspective and understand that your opponent is not taking a counter position just to be difficult. You must realize that an actual belief system is the reason this person seems contrary. You need to show some respect for those that believe differently than you.
The truth is that once someone has “dug in” to their proclamation of belief in anything, it is very hard to get them to budge. However, you can always try to speak to the person who is not so entrenched, or at least someone who will be a fair listener. You must get them to authentically accept your premise before you shower them with facts. None of us respect an opponent that ignores our frame. Once you connect on this level, most of the work of a persuasive conversation is done.