Beware the perils of trying to change other people’s beliefs or you could be making matters worse. David shares his story.
So, I am currently on a train to Durham to meet one of my coaching clients. I now don’t have anyone sat next to me but for the last hour, I have had a person (who shall remain nameless) sitting to my left who is a loud and proud Covid Denier (I decided to use uppercase as, after the last hour, I think these words form a proper noun!).
So how do I know? When he came to sit down, he politely asked if the seat was free and I said that it was and asked him if he would like me to wear my facemask. His response surprised me: “No my friend, I don’t believe in Covid!”
One of the Rambutan bunch currently has Covid. Another has a son with the illness. One of my school friends lost his father to Covid… how dare someone say it doesn’t exist? How frustrating! I launched into a one-man mission to convert this naysayer. I gave him all my examples and he had a counter-example for each. I grabbed my phone and started quoting data from the GOV.UK website and Worldometer app… all of which fell on stony ground. On reflection, and after my temporary travel companion had left the train, I realised the error of my ways. Beliefs are very powerful and personal. They are treated by the brain as 100% true. Once formed, they can be hard to change and me trying to convince someone that their beliefs were wrong and mine were ‘superior’ (without any form of mandate except, ‘Excuse me, is this seat free?’) had the opposite effect. The more I attacked his beliefs, the more passionate he became in defending them and, in doing so, the more ingrained they became. I knew this would happen and am disappointed that I got caught off-guard. Beliefs are true for those who believe them so, being so direct with my challenge was the equivalent of telling him he was an idiot… not the best strategy to ‘win friends or influence people’ and it clearly frustrated him.
What I should have done (if I should have done anything) is to genuinely try to understand this person’s beliefs and how they had formed. That would have been fascinating and in line with some of the things I learned from reading Megan Phelps-Roper’s book, ‘Unfollow – A journey from hatred to hope – Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church’. In addition, her TED Talk on the subject is brilliant. She talks about how she grew up with hatred and discrimination as the norm in her family life but that it wasn’t those who argued against her that convinced her to eventually leave the church (and her family). It was those who took the time to engage with her beliefs to understand them. And let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean understanding and agreeing… it means JUST understanding. I wish I had remembered this before my un-masked-man encounter on the train earlier. I might have learned something and there would have been two people a whole lot less frustrated!