Let’s just go for it this morning, shall we? Anyone else having ‘discussions’ about the validity of the coronavirus vaccine with unreasonable people? Wharton School of Business organizational psychologist Adam Grant had already had the anti-vaxxer debate of debates with one of his oldest friends. Then came corona. In his own words,
“I decided to see if I could open R.’s mind to the possibility. What I didn’t realize was that my mind would be opened as well.”
This notion of mutuality, of reciprocity, of dual willingness is the veritable heart of what’s missing in our populace. Now, if only we would do this consciously.
When my spouse and I get what we call glitchy, the best resolutions are the ones that open us both to a newer, better, clearer understanding of one another. But if one of us is determined to be right rather than connected, resolution seems only to get farther and further away, like that mule — you know the one, the stubborn as a mule mule — plodding after the proverbial carrot, bless her heart.
Dr. Grant again, “As an organizational psychologist, I’ve spent the past few years studying how to motivate people to think again.”
This is the idea that has me the most scared, Beloved — that people, regular everyday you-and-me kind of people, have learned not to think. If I could give everyone on the planet only one gift, it would be a clearing of the information overload we all suffer and a bright, open mental space in which to think through the information that is important.
Dr. Grant tracks the usual way we experience people we consider unreasonable. They believe X. You believe Y. When X is expressed, Y fights it. He admits to having been called a “logic bully” more than once.
Just so’s ya knows, bullying is never, but never, ever going to work. In fact, based on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s axiom — What you resist persists — we know that the reverse is true. When you try to logic someone out of a belief, they often dig in their heels, and the interchange ends up strengthening and entrenching that belief even deeper into the psyche of the believer.
Not to put too technical a point on it, but this is how neural pathways work. They grow, they deepen, they expand as we rehearse whatever the notion is that created them over and over. This is why I so often remind my clients, rehearsing the difficulty only makes it worse. Or, as Richard Bach in The Illusions of a Reluctant Messiah wrote, “Argue for your problems — and sure enough, they’re yours.”
“That’s what happened with my friend,” writes Dr. Grant. “If I wanted him to rethink his blanket resistance to vaccines, I had to rethink my approach.”
At the risk of banging the same old, same old drum, Beloved, this is what we all must do with those who disagree with us politically, philosophically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I truly believe if we do not, we will be unable to repair our social fabric.
Dr. Grant recommends a technique developed for addiction recovery called motivational interviewing. Here’s his description: “Instead of trying to force other people to change, you’re better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan.”
Before we go further, let me tell you that metaphysicians from the 1850s and onward were using this technique although they called it praxis in those days. The point is this: being human means we desire things — that’s how we put Free Will into play, through desire.
Because all desires are not created equal — namely, you might need a new winter coat but you might want a mint-condition 1957 Cadillac convertible — there is an innate hierarchy of desire within each person. Accessing that hierarchy, and choosing to focus first on a/ what you want (Free Will) rather than what you don’t want (Free Won’t) and b/ what you want that has as great or greater emotional impact is the premise that undergirds this. You’re going to want a new winter coat much more in November than you do in March.
Those earlier metaphysicians called this finding a Mental Equivalent.
Dr. Grant again, “The pioneers of motivational interviewing, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, have long warned against using the technique to manipulate people. It requires a genuine desire to understand people’s motivations and help them reach their goals.”
Here it is, the U-turn that makes openness, reciprocity, and mutuality possible: I must have a genuine desire to understand. Remember the chorine working on being an ice cream cone in A Chorus Line? So I dug right down to the bottom of my soul / to see what I had inside / Yes, I dug right down to the bottom of my soul / and I tried, I tried.
I would parse the Messrs. Miller and Rollnick a little more finely. Even if you can generate a genuine desire to understand, you can almost always generate a willingness to have a genuine desire to understand, and sometimes that’s good enough. Even if you’re just willing to be willing sometimes that will work.
As Dr. Grant says, “I realized I had never tried to understand his perspective … before.” So he calls his friend.
“Psychologists find that when we listen carefully and call attention to the nuances in people’s own thinking, they become less extreme and more open in their views.” There is a spiritual practice which suggests that whenever we hear ourselves accuse anyone, we add the words, As am I to the end of the accusation.
Beloved, we cannot accuse others of something that does not exist without ourselves. I know this is hard to swallow, but just because your friend is rigid about his anti-vax stance, it doesn’t mean you are rigid about the same thing. It means you, too, have rigidity within yourself, possibly about other things, like say, open-mindedness — as am I.
How we ask questions, realizes Dr. Grant, matters. It does. Leading questions, questions that trap the witness, if you will, closed-ended, yes/no questions won’t work in a scenario like this. Only open-ended questions will work. Dr. Grant also realizes that asking why questions — as in why someone believes something — is much less effective than asking how your friend sees that belief working out.
Dr. Grant again, “In motivational interviewing, there’s a distinction between sustain talk and change talk. Sustain talk is commentary about maintaining the status quo. Change talk is referencing a desire, ability, or commitment to making a shift. A skilled motivational interviewer listens for change talk and asks people to elaborate on it.”
Not only in motivational interviewing, also in everyday conversation. Think on this a moment. Recall a time when you’ve been deadlocked in political conversation. Thanksgiving Dinner, anyone? No, really. Think … were you hearing sustain talk? Usually, sustain talk has a common theme — the desire to control. It also can have a common tone. Bring up the tone you heard in your interlocutor’s voice. It was defensive, wasn’t it?
This is not a criticism of defensiveness, Beloved. But being defensive or witnessing defensiveness in another is a cue to what’s going on and it will behoove you to notice it, and respond accordingly.
Now let’s consider change talk, shall we? Usually, change talk has a common theme and a common tone as well. The common theme is as though the speaker is trying on something new. The common tone is hesitancy, and often, wonder.
Dr. Grant’s friend agreed to keep an open mind about the coronavirus vaccine, but the good doctor didn’t count that as his victory. “The real breakthrough, though, was mine. I became open to a new mode of conversation, with no points to score and no debate to win. The only victory I declared was against my own prosecutor tendencies. I had prevailed over my inner logic bully.”
Bravo, Doc! “It’s worth remembering that the means are a measure of our character. If we succeed in opening minds, the question is not only whether we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We should also ask whether we’re proud of how we’ve achieved it.”
The how matters, Beloved. At the simplest level, you can learn about the Law of Gravity in science class — the easy way — or you can jump off the garage roof and learn the hard way. That choice is always up to us, Beloved. How we live, how we speak, how we comport ourselves is always up to us.
Dr. Grant’s last bit of wisdom, “I no longer believe it’s my place to change anyone’s mind. All I can do is try to understand their thinking and ask if they’re open to some rethinking. The rest is up to them.”
Well, really, the rest is up to us. Each one of us.
The message is everywhere. Consider these from this morning’s New York Times:
“Turns out that, as feminists have said for years, the world won’t change for women unless men change, too.” Cindi Lieve on @SecondGentleman, Doug Emhoff. Women and men.
Jennifer Finney Boylan on her cisgender wife the day after President Biden signed his executive order restoring rights to trans people, “Deirdre wasn’t erased at all. She was as visible as can be. What she seemed, above all, was happy that the person she loves is once again considered an American with the same rights as everyone else.” Cisgender and transgender.
In a story about the single-event fairy tale we’ve reduced decades of social justice work by Rosa Parks to: “Mrs. Parks’s decades of work challenging the racial injustice puts the lie to this narrative. The nation didn’t move naturally toward justice. It had to be pushed.” Black and white.
Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science and the author of eleven books on the civil rights and Black Power movements. She writes in the same article about Rosa Parks, “[A]ll Americans, need to understand to grapple honestly with this country’s history and see the road forward.”
It’s that forward road that interests me now, Beloved, that forward road is a mandate — a command, a demand — for all of us to think through, talk through, listen through our differences at every level — generational, racial, social, sexual, creedal, political, vaccinational, and every other one you can conceive that has caused our anguished differences.
Langston Hughes, born today in 1902, says it best on this the dawn of Black History Month.
Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be. … / Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed — / Let it be that great strong land of love / Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme / That any man be crushed by one above.
It’s already started. Look around, you’ll see it, you’ll feel it. We’re ready to move on, move out, and move forward. Now how can you participate right where you are? The road forward stretches out before us into eternity.
Dr. Susan Corso is a spiritual teacher, the founder of iAmpersand, and the author of The Mex Mysteries, the Boots & Boas Books, and spiritual nonfiction. Her essays address the intersection between spirituality and culture. Find out more at www.susancorso.com