If You Want to Influence People, Don’t Do This

It’s not easy to change people’s minds.

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Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Perhaps you’ve noticed that social media causes us to lose our minds.

Doesn’t it make us love to hate? It isn’t exactly hard to come across angry and hateful posts directed at someone or something.

We see this trend on social media because angry sentiments spread more quickly and widely than sentiments expressing joy, sadness, or disgust. So, if you want to generate a response, anger is definitely the way to go.

The question is, why do we express our anger in the first place?

Is it because we love to feel validated by the attention we receive? Is it because we love tearing down other people’s ideas so we feel powerful and superior? Is it because we love the feeling of self-righteous indignation?

Maybe your answer to all these questions is “yes”. You certainly wouldn’t be alone if it is.

But, if you also have the goal of influencing people — of changing minds — which many of us like to think we do, don’t fool yourself: expressing yourself using anger isn’t going to cut it.

Anger Won’t Change Minds

The intention of angrily expressing an opinion is to influence minds, right? Whether for the person the anger is directed toward or for other spectators, don’t we express anger to convince people of our correctness, superiority, and moral high-ground?

Unfortunately, a couple of things happen when we angrily confront people.

First, they’ll likely get angry, too. In scientific terms, this phenomenon is called emotional contagion. In a nutshell, humans tend to mimic the emotional states of people to whom they’re talking.

Second, anger causes us to fall back on our biases, instincts, and stereotypes, and prevents us from using the rational parts of our minds.

OK, so quick recap. You’re angry and therefore irrational. Your anger causes whoever you’re angry with to also become angry and therefore irrational.

What are the chances you two will have a productive conversation?

Even at the best of times, it’s difficult for us to change our minds. Research on resolving cognitive dissonance, which is the state of simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, has shown that people prefer to ignore or downplay new information rather than change their perspectives.

There is a certain amount of effort and courage required to change our views, and if we don’t have respect for that process, we’re not going to change anyone’s mind. In fact, the more we push our ideas and beliefs onto others who don’t see eye-to-eye with us, the more they will resist.

Think about it — when’s the last time someone convinced you to discard a strongly held belief in a single conversation? Has that ever happened? And, if it has happened, were they using anger to express their argument? Probably not.

The fact is, the angrier we get, the less rational we get. The less rational we get, the more we rely on our biases, instincts, and stereotypes to guide our thinking. As a result, our minds are essentially immune to being changed when we’re angry.

The same goes for everyone else.

Changing Our Approach

Social media has made it painfully obvious how angry we all are. Our posts scream of self-righteous indignation. We all think we’re right, and we demand that everyone else acknowledge it.

Part of the problem is that we like to be angry. It feels good.

The Buddha is thought to have expressed the idea that anger has a poisoned root and a honeyed tip. What did he mean by this?

Don’t we feel powerful when we express our anger? Isn’t it satisfying to “put someone in his or her place”? Don’t we feel good about ourselves when we angrily look down on others?

This is the “honeyed tip” of anger.

The “poisoned root” is the element of hatred associated with our anger. It’s not that anger is a bad thing to express, it’s that it often carries with it strong negative judgements of other people.

A negative judgement of others wouldn’t be a bad thing if it was deserved. But, because our anger causes us to be irrational, those negative judgements are probably based on our biases, instincts, and stereotypes.

If this process continues unnoticed, these irrational and negative judgements become the habits of our minds. And, as we have seen, these beliefs are difficult to change even when we encounter conflicting information.

By acknowledging these two aspects of anger — that it feels good to express it and that it causes us to form irrational judgements — we can put ourselves on a different path. We can start to question what we believe and we can start to understand why other people react the way they do to hot-button issues.

If we can stay calm and light-hearted, even when the topic is important to us, we stand the greatest chance of bypassing the defenses of the angry mind.

The result? Two rational minds engaged in a mutually beneficial conversation.

Does that sound impossible?

Well, it’s certainly difficult. When we care about a topic it’s not easy to stay calm or light-hearted. However, one trick to avoiding anger is to understand the topic. Research has shown we are more likely to express anger when we’re unsure of ourselves.

But, we can’t know everything. So, perhaps an even better strategy is to become comfortable with uncertainty. We will never have all the answers. No one will. And that’s OK.

Be curious. Don’t assume you know why people believe what they believe. The scariest part about having an honest and open conversation with another human is that they might cause us to change our minds. Are you ready for this?

I know, it’s uncomfortable. We all want to be right. And no one wants to look like a fool.

But if we aren’t ready to change our minds, how can we expect the same of anyone else?

Thanks for reading!

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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