These days, it seems we are often called upon to deal with people whose beliefs may be in strong opposition to ours. A colleague working within a large university-based medical center asked me for a blog piece dealing with this challenge.
Like every medical center in the world today, hers is struggling with COVID. Not only because of the overwhelming number of cases their center has to deal with, but also because so many colleagues and patients have differing ideas about COVID, based on different sources of information deemed acceptable to their way of thinking. Pretty much everybody thinks their way of thinking is right, and other people’s views are ridiculous. What to do?
Step One – Acceptance of the person, and of our shared human frailty: Approximately 100% of human beings have some beliefs that turn out to be accurate, and other beliefs? Not so much. Humility is a pretty good place to start when interacting with those whose views are different from ours. It prevents the holier-than-thou attitude that is easy to access when we are sooo sure we’re right, and that is sooo unhelpful in coming to any kind of meeting of the minds.
If your client’s organization has a particular set of organizational beliefs that needs to be communicated and accepted by those who work there, acceptance of those beliefs will be the organization’s goal, but acceptance of the person is the place to start.
One problem with some COVID-related beliefs is that they can be deadly. If we indeed believe that, then we, as coaches, can get riled up, making it more difficult for us to do our jobs. You will know that you are in the grips of your reptile brain when you are vehemently agreeing with your clients about just how wrong and ridiculous those disagreeing with you are. We are supposed to be the calm, logical ones, right? When our reptile brains speak to other reptile brains, we get predictably terrible results. In this case, we teach our clients to be unaccepting of other people.
We need to operate out of our own EQ brains (prefrontal cortex) as a model for our clients, so they can use that model with the people they need to influence. Acceptance of people and of our shared human frailty can help, because it calms us, and hopefully calms those with whom we are interacting. Nobody gets to be almighty. Nobody has to be the enemy. Nobody has to be the jerk. Deep breath!
Step Two – Forget Reasoning: Yes, you read that right! Let your clients know that barraging “misinformed” (i.e., differently informed) co-workers or subordinates with facts (as we see them) is not a good plan. It simply won’t work.
Your clients won’t believe you at first. Highly educated people have been socialized to be certain that if people just have the “right facts,” they will make the “right” decision (i.e., agree with us). In truth, most decisions about what to believe, including most of our own decisions, are emotion-based. (More humility. We thought we were such rational creatures!) To help their colleagues get past COVID-based beliefs that may be deadly, if that indeed is the mission, your clients will have to work largely with emotions, their own as well as those of their colleagues. Once emotions are dealt with, minds can open up to a discussion of facts.
Step Three – Understand the Power of Belonging: To understand the emotions involved, we have to understand why people cling to these heated differences regarding COVID. The short answer? The need to belong. And you can blame brain evolution for that.
What do the need to belong and brain evolution have to do with anything, you may ask? Well, because of the way our brains have evolved, belonging to a key group is actually far more powerful in determining our beliefs than scientific facts are, and can even influence the determination of which statements are seen to qualify as scientific. This is why “facts” are the wrong first step.
Now let’s fill in some details, because your clients will need to know them in order to understand your counsel.
The human brain has been evolving for about 50,000 generations, counting our evolutionary ancestors. To put that in perspective, recorded history (approximately 6,000 years) is only 240 generations. Thus, for 99.5% of human existence, our brains evolved to solve problems faced by people who lived in very primitive circumstances. Their world was full of physical dangers that modern life has largely overcome.
In those primitive, brain-shaping times, no human could survive very long alone. Predators and Mother Nature provided challenges that humans could solve only by working and living with other humans, i.e., their tribes. Belonging to your tribe was a matter of life and death. Those who got shunned died. The fear of alienation from our tribes has been inculcated deeply into our psyches and brains by repetition over tens of thousands of generations. We still desperately want and need to belong.
Belonging to a tribe, or group, involves having a shared belief system. To early man, this meant, “If I don’t believe what the group believes, then I’ll be shunned and die.” That’s why, even today, we can feel such social pressure to believe what those around us believe, even when we “know” differently. (“I shouldn’t be doing this, but . . .”) Peer pressure doesn’t end with adolescence. It is alive and well in adults.
Some groups today define themselves by COVID beliefs such as, “vaccines are dangerous.” If some members of your client’s organization are in one of those groups, they risk ridicule and alienation if they don’t share that belief. Likewise for those who belong to groups that believe vaccines are not only safe, but necessary. Members of that group who start questioning the value of vaccines may find themselves labeled “nutcases” by their colleagues.
Step Four – Focus on Belonging: To influence people you believe are locked into beliefs that, for example, may end up harming someone, begin with belonging, not facts. You may think that’s a fool’s errand. How will you convince someone to disregard the beliefs of their tribe?
Well, an advantage we have today, one that primitive people did not have, is that we each belong to many tribes, so we have more choices about where we can not belong but still survive, i.e., we can remove ourselves from one tribe, but still have plenty of other tribes we can belong to. In addition to a COVID belief-based tribe, for example, we may also belong to tribes of men, women, LGBTQ, physicians, nurses, med techs, teachers, classmates, business owners, White, Black, Brown, various religions, families, parents, tennis players, football team members, fast food workers, etc. So even if we decide to slip out of one, we will still have a great number of others left. We will still belong somewhere. Realizing this can help lessen the fear of not belonging to any one particular tribe.
And that is important, because sometimes these tribes will have competing belief systems. When that happens, people need to make some tough judgments.
In a work setting, someone may think, “I share the concerns that some of my co-workers have about vaccinations (doubters’ tribe) but I also belong to my (name of medical center or other organization here) tribe, where the belief system favors vaccinations.” It may turn out that how connected employees feel to their organization (or department) will be what determines which tribe they choose to stay loyal to. Connectedness is usually mediated by the quality of the relationship one has with one’s leader(s). Employees may ask themselves, “Do these people really care about me, or am I just a widget in their system?” If they feel they are just a widget, it may become “us against them” when it comes to whether they will opt to side with their leaders.
Step Five – Ignore the hard core: If you are trying to help your clients influence groups of people toward the views their organizations have prioritized, warn them that giving the hard-core view-holders time and attention strengthens those people and their beliefs in the eyes of others. Instead, advise them to focus on the “big hump” of people in the middle of the bell curve. By definition, those people will have at least some mixed feelings about their positions.
Step Six – Have real conversations: Pronouncements from on high will have minimal impact on changing beliefs. Work though leaders, including emotional leaders who may not have a formal leadership role, who are close to those in the middle of the bell curve on this issue, the ones likely to have at least some mixed feelings about the topic.
Ask leaders to talk with their people, but to do it in a particular way. In these conversations, power differentials are put aside as much as possible. Leaders won’t direct, won’t invoke their power, but rather will listen, respect the other, and perhaps most importantly, exercise genuine curiosity about the other’s point of view.
Most leaders will probably need at least some brief training in how to have such a conversation, training that may pay off for years to come. Having a model to use, such as Motivational Interviewing, can simplify this task. In one example, where a leader or manager might want to encourage people to consider with an open mind the idea of getting vaccinated, the conversation might go something like this:
Leader: “John, as you know, the administration is really concerned about vaccinations. How do you feel about getting one? How do you think others in your section feel about them?”
John: “I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s a good idea. I’ve heard stories. I think a lot of other people here are skeptical too.”
Leader: “I can appreciate your anxiety about it. What are some of the stories going around?”
John: “Some stories are kind of ridiculous, like that Bill Gates thing. Others make more sense. For example, it does seem like they rushed the vaccine out pretty fast.”
Leader: “They did talk about warp speed, didn’t they?”
John: (Chuckling) – “Yes, they sure did.”
At this point, John has expressed a concern that can be discussed.
Leader: “Well, we all have to make up our own minds.” (Of course each person’s choice impacts others, but this statement reassures people that they are not getting pressured by the leader. That helps John not feel defensive. Instead, he may become curious, ask questions, and give genuine consideration to what the leader may have to say or ask.)
Leader: “What would you need to know about the process to become comfortable that safety wasn’t sacrificed for speed?” (This question invites, but doesn’t demand, that people begin to search for new information.)
Different doubters will have different concerns, which an empathic, caring discussion can surface. Once such issues have been surfaced within this kind of context, people may be open to hearing new information, or learning about ways to find new information for themselves. Should they move in the desired direction, they are likely to become ambassadors for the overall goal. Because the leader has used the EQ skills of Empathy and Interpersonal Relationships, information that would be more helpful in achieving the organization’s goals might now be heard and accepted.
For a more complete description of Motivational Interviewing: https://motivationalinterviewing.org/understanding-motivational-interviewing