What would it take to change your mind?

Many larger organizations in our sector work to persuade, to influence, to change behavior. In a sense, they are in the “argument” business.

Meanwhile, some lucky organizations are promoting a cause or idea that is universal. Our friends at the MyLifeLine Cancer Foundation, for example, don’t have to convince people that a cancer diagnosis is frightening and daunting, with the healing journey supported strongly by a closely connected community of loved ones and care providers. Thus MyLifeLine’s mission is to provide free web pages to cancer patients.

The extent to which a donor or funder is drawn to this wonderful mission relates in many cases to a person’s individual or family experience with cancer. MyLifeLine works to identify and reach out to people who are likely to benefit from, and support, their work, but their communications are rarely an “argument” in the literal sense.

But consider how many truly divisive and controversial issues are woven into the missions of nonprofits: choices in health care, guns, immigration, tolerance for different gender identities, balancing economic and environmental values, balancing national security with personal privacy, defining appropriate international aid, perceptions about people with disabilities, race relations . . . the list is discouraging and exhausting.

So if your work involves making an argument for or against a controversial issue, how do you change peoples’ minds?  Is it really possible to change a person’s’ opinion on a deeply held issue? Do you ever stop to consider your own entrenched position as possibly needing to shift as well in order to make lasting change?

From Chris Argyris’ work in Overcoming Organizational Defenses, we learn that the way we see the world is the result of self-reinforcing patterns of thought that ultimately distort how we take in information. The information we pick out from the world seems to constantly strengthen what we already believe is true. Have you ever marveled at how often you seem to be right about things?

Once we form a belief, a thought process that Argyris calls “the reflexive loop” takes over. The reflexive loop acts like a valve: it lets in data which corroborates our beliefs, while shutting out data inconsistent with our preconceptions. The reflexive loop accelerates the hardening of our emerging beliefs into deeply held convictions that get incorporated into our worldview.

Here’s our own simplified version of how “reflexive loop” theory works, offered here to help you consider how and when the point of view of a client, volunteer, donor, funder, elected official, or even reporter is likely formed. And in the spirit of furthering understanding, consider yourself in this context as well and consider how much of this process happens unconsciously. To make this theory less esoteric, imagine a sensitive issue that you feel is controversial, like gun rights versus gun control.

  1. Start with a defined set of images and experiences, i.e., a scenario observed as a video camera would capture it.
  2. The human mind selects and identifies from these images what it considers to be “data” from what it observes.
  3. We add personal meaning to this data based on our own individual stories.
  4. We add cultural meaning to this data based on where we live, the era in which we live, and our societal clan.
  5. Along this continuum of forming opinion are the influences of our peers and of the media we are exposed to.
  6. We make assumptions based on the meanings we have added.
  7. We draw conclusions, again based on what we consider to be “fact” and what meaning we have attached to these data.
  8. We adopt beliefs about not just these specific conclusions but about the world.
  9. We seek to influence others, particularly young people, to support our beliefs.
  10. We take action based on these beliefs, and judge the value of actions that others take as well.

Given that arguing a position with the extent of changing the other person’s point of view is rarely successful and probably a waste of your nonprofit’s precious time and money, you may want to consider a more sophisticated process of building true consensus and compromise.

This TIP and our own thinking was inspired by an excellent article on this subject, “How to change a mind–yours and others,” written in January 2007 and available free online from www. interactionassociates.com, a corporate management consulting firm.