When I was in college, I worked for two and a half years in our office of alcohol and drug abuse prevention education. It was a great job to have in college and I learned a lot, but probably the best skill I took away from the office was something called motivational interviewing. You can check out that Wikipedia link if you want more in-depth information, but I'll explain how we used this approach in our work, and what it's taught me about other areas of life.
My last year on the job, I ran some of our Alcohol Skills Training Program groups; people could join these voluntarily, but they were almost always students who had been sanctioned to a group because of an alcohol policy violation, which was generally underage drinking. Here's the important thing to understand: We never tried to get these students to stop drinking alcohol. From an ethical perspective, this might seem problematic, since underage drinking is illegal, right? So, what, we're condoning breaking the law?
Well, there's two things to consider:
- First, if we tried to convince these students to stop drinking, the program would be ineffective. These students came in completely defiant, angry that they even had to attend some kind of session. You might scare a couple of kids into stopping, but if the law wasn't a deterrent before, it's not going to be afterwards either.
- And secondly, why is there a drinking age in the first place? To keep people and property safe. So if there's a way to make people and property safer even if people are still drinking underage, that's going to be a better approach than pushing for an absolute result you're just simply not going to see.
So the first step was always to ask the students to identify their goals when it came to drinking alcohol. In other words, they named the benefits of drinking: They were able to fit in. It helped them relax. It was expected of them. Most opportunities to meet people happened around alcohol. And so on.
Then they would name the potential negative consequences of drinking: They might embarrass themselves. They might blackout and have to ask their friends later what happened. They might vomit, pass out, or otherwise get "sloppy" where no one wanted to be around them. It was important that the students came up with the possible negative consequences, rather than being told what they were.
Finally, we'd look at a chart of different Blood Alcohol Levels and their effects to figure out where the students felt they could maximize the positive consequences and minimize the negative consequences of drinking. Then they'd have the chance to calculate how many drinks they could have per hour, based on their weight and sex, to stay in that zone.
(This was the core of it; we also talked about how alcohol affects your body, myths about drinking, safer vs. less safe ways to drink, and so on, and they'd come back a week later to report what changes they'd made.)
What made this program effective was that it functioned within the students' reality. They were motivated to change their behavior not because it brought them in line with some external set of rules or laws, but because it brought them more in line with their own goals. Occasionally I'd get students who planned to stop drinking altogether, not because they were afraid of getting caught again but because they'd realized that they could achieve their goals (spending time with friends, having fun) without any alcohol at all.
So why am I telling you all this?
What I learned from this experience wasn't just about curbing underage drinking. It was an incredibly powerful truth about talking to other people: If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them first. And if you want to convince them of something, you have to do it in terms that make sense to them.
It sounds simple, but I rarely see it put into practice. I discussed this a bit previously when I talked about explaining my beliefs to those who have all the answers. But what I've been thinking about lately is people trying to convince me to change my mind. And how much they suck at it.
For example, let's say you have a problem with the fact that I support same-sex marriage.
The first thing out of your mouth should not be: "Well, the Bible says..."
Nor should it be: "Well, the Church says..."
And definitely not any form of: "Well, you're wrong because..."
If you want to get anywhere with me on this (which is unlikely), the best place to start is:
"So, why is that important to you?"
Now we're having a conversation.
It's the same with anything. I often draw comparisons between vegetarianism and Christianity. There are so many different reasons a person could choose not to eat meat, or to limit their intake of meat. If you start trying to point out the problems with my personal diet without having any idea of why I eat what I do or what I'm trying to accomplish by it, you will get nowhere. If you ask me questions about it and then you take issue with my reasoning on one point or another, we can totally have a conversation about it.
And, like, no offense to my Muslim friends, but if you start pointing out all the things I do that are wrong because they're not in accordance with the Qur'an, I'm going to look at you like you're crazy. If you want to first ask me how I seek spiritual guidance in my life, and then tell me how you believe the Qur'an fits with what's important to me, then I will be willing to listen to you. (I use this example not because anyone's been waving a Qur'an around me lately, but because people like to wave the Bible at me without first bothering to find out how I read the Bible, and I feel my point gets through better when I use another Holy Book as an example.)
Anyway, you get the point. If you want me or anyone else to change our mind on something, your best bet is to start out gathering a bunch of information on why we do what we do and think how we do, and then start with those areas where we agree.
Seriously, try it. The next time you're about to criticize someone or tell them how they should be living their life differently, stop yourself, and then ask a question instead. I think you will be amazed at how much more receptive the other person will be... and you just might learn something new, too.
When has someone had the most success changing your mind on something, and when has someone had the least success?