Updated: Aug 29, 2020
written by Eric Prince (with lots of help from Emily Tokarowski)
We’ve all been there. You’re chatting with a friend, family member, coworker, or acquaintance, and the conversation starts to get political. You soon realize the other person doesn’t share your views. In fact, their views are SO outrageous that you don’t even know where to begin to correct them. The other person has ignored all data, all facts, and all common-sense. It’s mind-blowing, really.
But you continue the discussion anyways, because their views are so wrong that you just feel the need to correct them.
The conversation might go a little like this:
So, you push back a little more. But then you get this in response:
And now you’re just dumbfounded. So, you try another tactic.
And that’s where you lose them. You’ve come to a crossroads. There seems to be no way that you can convince them of an alternative viewpoint. The other person writes you off as a sheep who follows any advice given by an authority in power. And you write the other person off as a nincompoop and an ignoramus.
Conversations like these seem to be a lost cause these days. How do you converse with people who won’t listen to data, facts, or even basic common-sense? How do you convince someone of an alternative viewpoint? How do you expose someone to new information?
The answer isn’t easy. But before we start to answer these questions, first we have to understand just who these data-ignoring, fact-shirking, and common-sense-avoiding people are.
WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE!?
So, who are these people who refuse to listen to data, facts, and basic common sense? Well, I call these people anti-reasoners. Let's talk about these anti-reasoners for a moment.
This is the anti-reasoner:
The anti-reasoners are everywhere.
And they could look like anyone.
The anti-reasoners aren’t easy to talk to. In fact, a lot of them are misinformed, misled, and extremely ignorant. They watch the most extreme news networks (check out OAN if you want to be terrified), some of them believe in conspiracy theories, and they don’t trust anything created by the establishment (which is almost everything).
Ironically, they also seem to put all of their trust (or mistrust) into certain people or political parties (even if they’re part of the establishment), and they ignore data and facts because the data and facts don't align with their political identity.
They also seem to value completely different things than you or I might value, and their values don’t make a whole lot of sense when you actually break them down either. Sometimes the anti-reasoner seems brainwashed by the media and other times they seem to be at war with the media.
And it isn’t just a specific topic they feel this way about. The topics can cover ANYTHING, especially in this current age of extreme polarization.
Some examples of these topics might include: vaccinations, police brutality, race relations, global warming, gender equality, immigration, Donald Trump, coronavirus, healthcare, Congress, science, impeachment, education, evolution. The list goes on and on.
But here’s the thing, these people are not a monolithic group. It’s not like you can spot them from afar and say, “Oh, that’s one of those people".
No. The anti-reasoner can be liberal, conservative, Black, White, Christian, Muslim, rich, poor, happy, sad, old, young, you name it.
But they all have two things in common, which is why I’ve written this piece today.
They’ll talk over you. They’ll ignore what you have to say. They scoff at you. And they think YOU'RE the idiot.
The second thing most anti-reasoners have in common is that they all tend to gather on the extremes of the political spectrum, which makes real, constructive conversation with them that much more difficult.
So, is real, constructive conversation with an anti-reasoner pointless?
No! There IS a way to get through to the anti-reasoner. But I must warn you, the answer isn’t easy. It’s going to take A LOT of patience and a lot of empathy.
Thankfully, I’ve taken the time to break the answer down into five steps. So, without further ado, let's find out how to talk to those people who just won’t listen to data, facts, and basic
1. Put aside your pride and remain respectful.
Step 1 requires the most personal restraint because we humans are naturally prideful. And we sometimes allow our pride to get in the way of respect. And in this age of endless polarization, conversations can quickly devolve into shouting matches.
But it’s IMPORTANT that you do not let it get to this point.
Because once you do, the conversation with the anti-reasoner is over. If you had ANY chance of convincing them of your side of the argument…well, let’s just say you don't have that chance anymore.
So, here’s what you: put aside your pride and remain respectful.
Let’s break this advice down into its two components: pride and respect.
Pride. Look, I know these people irritate you. How do I know? Because the very same people also irritate me! I just want to grab them by their shoulders and yell in their face, “YOU’RE WRONG YOU DOPE!”
Unfortunately, this IS NOT a constructive way to go about things. It’s NOT helpful to the discussion. And you’re ONLY going to push the anti-reasoner away.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind: if I’m SO sure that I’m correct, I should be confident enough to keep my cool and talk to the other person like they’re, well…a person! Otherwise, I’m just as close-minded as the anti-reasoner.
Which brings us to respect. You have to respect the other person. Or you have to at least PRETEND like you do. You might really dislike certain political figures (Trump), but calling one of his supporters an “idiot” isn’t going to change their mind (or vote). And treating their ideas or arguments as stupid isn’t going to do much for you either. And yes, their ideas might ACTUALLY be stupid, but what’s the point of vocalizing it?
First, there’s a reason for the way they think and who they support. And no matter how misguided or dumb these reasons are, the other person believes them. It’s part of their identity. And if you call their ideas dumb, you’re essentially calling them dumb. Plus, they probably think YOUR ideas are dumb too. They might even think YOU’RE the anti-reasoner.
In order to show respect to an anti-reasoner, you have to practice some empathy. Place yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself some questions:
What led the anti-reasoner to this moment in their lives? Why might they feel this way? What kind of views and people are they surrounded by on a day-to-day basis?
The anti-reasoner isn’t a bad person (for the most part). They’re not trying to be malicious (for the most part). Keep this in mind.
2. Adjust your argument to their beliefs.
Once you start to empathize with the anti-reasoner, you might start to make a strange realization: the two of you aren’t even talking about the same things.
Sure, you might be talking about the same things, but you aren’t really talking about the same things. Make sense? No? Okay. Let me try to clear this up with an example.
Imagine you’re back in that conversation from the beginning of this post. You know, the one about climate change:
The person you’re arguing with doesn’t think climate change is a big issue. And they REALLY don’t think that it’s the government’s job to enforce environmental regulations. They believe that government regulation is harming certain industries. It’s destroying jobs. It’s hurting the economy. And for the anti-reasoner, jobs and the economy are MORE important than the environment.
You, on the other hand, believe that climate change DEFINITELY exists and it’s one of the most important issues of our lifetime. You also believe the issue is SO serious that the only way we’re going to address the issue in time is for the government to intervene and place heavy regulation on the market. You also realize that environmental protection is WAAAAAAY more important than jobs or the economy, because climate change is going to destroy millions of lives and millions of jobs.
See, you're not even arguing about the same things! Your focuses are completely misaligned. The anti-reasoner is arguing about jobs and the economy and you're arguing about the impacts of climate change.
Unfortunately, the impacts of climate change don't matter to the person you're speaking with. So, if you show them a climate-change-related study written by internationally renowned scientists explaining why government intervention is needed IMMEDIATELY, the anti-reasoner isn’t going to listen to you. They don’t care about that. They care about jobs and the economy.
Your arguments are landing on deaf ears. And while your arguments ARE important – government action on climate change needs to be taken NOW – you’re not going to get far trying to convince the anti-reasoner of this. Save that argument for another day. First, you have to connect with them on THEIR level.
What does the anti-reasoner care about? Jobs and the economy. So, talk to them about jobs and the economy.
If the anti-reasoner hates environmentalists because coal-related jobs are disappearing, suggest that the same skills and jobs used in coal-related jobs can be transferred to other careers in renewable energies.
Additionally, try to stay away from mindlessly spewing data points. This doesn’t work. Most people don’t think in variables and amorphous numbers.
Instead, use stories when possible. People love stories.
Try this one on for size:
This is Jimmy.
Jimmy lost his job when the coal mine shut down.
But then Jimmy found steady income for his family by using the same skillsets his father and grandfather passed down to him.
His elders may have worked in the coal mines, but Jimmy is successfully using these same tools and lessons on a wind farm today.
Sure, the anti-reasoner's concerns are ultimately unimportant in the long run (you and I know that if we ruin the environment, there won’t be any jobs left!), but jobs and the economy are obviously still important to the anti-reasoner, no matter how misguided these concerns might be.
Arguing with them on THEIR level is the only way you’re going to get through to them.
3. Pick your battles and know when to concede.
Not only do you have to adjust your argument to their beliefs, but you ALSO have to pick your battles and know when to concede certain points.
Do NOT take the shotgun approach.
The shotgun approach is when you try to address ALL of the anti-reasoners points.
Unfortunately, by trying to address ALL of the anti-reasoner's points you actually address none of their points. Your most important points will become muddled, you'll confuse yourself, and the anti-reasoner will lose interest soon after (even if you ARE arguing on their level).
You need to shrink the scope of your argument and let everything else go. Remember, you’re NOT going to change their entire belief system in one sitting.
You must focus your force, like a Jedi Knight.
Let’s return to our climate change example.
The anti-reasoner is worried about jobs and the economy. So, talk to him about jobs and the economy. And ONLY about jobs and the economy.
Even when the anti-reasoner says that climate change happens naturally (even though it's never changed this fast or this drastically in a 100-year-span before).
And especially when the anti-reasoner argues that climate change has been fabricated to undermine the energy sector so that scientists can profit off of renewable energies.
DO NOT get caught up in these side arguments. Once you start to focus on these side arguments, you will lose the anti-reasoner completely.
Again, put your pride aside. You know you are right and that the anti-reasoner is wrong. And if you’re confident enough in your views, you should have no problem letting some arguments go for now. You can always bring them up at a later time.
4. Start from a common ground (and connect emotionally)
One of the keys to a healthy, long-term, romantic relationship is to NEVER treat your significant other like the enemy.
If a problem arises in a romantic relationship, most relationship experts will tell you NOT to vilify or blame your partner. Your partner is NOT the enemy. The PROBLEM is the enemy. So sit down together and figure out how you can fix the PROBLEM (and not each other).
Why do I bring this up? Because the same rules apply to your discussions with the anti-reasoner.
Make sure that you keep the anti-reasoner on your side. You aren’t proving THEM wrong. You aren’t trying to make THEM look stupid. You’re trying to solve the issue TOGETHER.
One of the ways to do this is to identify a common ground between the two of you. Did you both grow up on the same street? Did you go to the same school? Do you have the same hobbies? That means your backgrounds are similar. That means that you’re both affected similarly by taxes, policies, politicians, you name it.
Use this common ground to your advantage, young grasshopper.
Starting from a common ground will help the person connect with you and will boost your likability factor. And your likability factor is the difference between someone listening to your words and ignoring them completely.
It’ll also convince the anti-reasoner that you have their best interest in mind. Why wouldn’t you? You’re from the same ilk after all!
This is why EVERY U.S. President EVER has implied they are Christian (what, you thought they were all religious? No way!). The President does this because Christianity is the largest religion in the United States and by accepting Christianity, they can unite over half the country under one umbrella. It creates a shared cause.
So, when the anti-reasoner brings up his concerns about jobs and the economy as if you’ve never heard of those words in your life, you tell him that you’re BOTH from the same background. YOUR dad also worked in the coal industry. So OF COURSE you care about Joe Everyman. And you ARE worried about the potential job loss.
Is this a little disingenuous? Well, it depends. You should definitely try as hard as you can to identify a legitimate common ground. It can’t be thaaaaat hard. You’re both human after all. But if you’re REALLY struggling with identifying a common ground, then maaaaaybe make something up. It’s okay to lie a little bit (but you didn’t hear that from me).
5. Don’t uproot the garden, just plant a few seeds.
Once you’ve identified a common ground between you and the anti-reasoner, you need to USE this opportunity to drive some doubt in the anti-reasoner’s mind.
But before you fill their head with doubt, be careful. It isn’t easy.
Has someone ever tried to change your beliefs? If so, how did that turn out? I’m willing to guess that they weren’t very successful. This other person made have swayed your opinions a little bit, but there’s NO WAY IN HELL you changed your entire belief system.
Unfortunately, ALL humans are like this. It’s really hard for people to do a total 180 of their beliefs, especially in a SINGLE conversation.
Hell, it’s still really difficult to convince someone of something small. Even if you follow ALL the above steps and become the anti-reasoner’s best friend, you STILL might not convince them that there are going to be more jobs after the coal mines shut down.
Your job should NEVER be to uproot the anti-reasoner’s entire garden. Like I said earlier, you NEED to focus on a few points. And even THAT might be pushing things a bit.
Instead, try to plant a seed of doubt at the very minimum. It’s MUCH more feasible to get the anti-reasoner thinking that maybe, just maybe, there are other solutions out there.
Here's an example:
Say the anti-reasoner says something like this:
So then you respond with:
Sure, this might work on someone reasonable. The anti-reasoner might admit they were wrong and the conversation would end right there. But that's not very likely to happen. Anti-reasoners aren't very reasonable, after all. It's right in their name!
Here is what they're likely to come back with:
Or WORSE, they say something like this:
Which just shows their backwards, double-think, absurdist mindset. They hate government intervention UNLESS it favors what THEY want.
Thankfully, though, both answers are pretty easy to answer.
Here's what you say:
Which still might not work. But now you've placed them in a position where you're agreeing with their original argument. The government should NOT be involved. (And obviously this wasn't your original argument either. You DO want government intervention. But remember: it's okay to lie a little bit.)
But, again, this is the anti-reasoner we're talking about. So this tactic STILL might not plant a seed of doubt. If that's the case, just keep saying shit like this:
Just keep questioning things without actually SAYING anything meaningful. You've already discovered that actual logic doesn't work on the anti-reasoner. So, at the very least, you can just force a little doubt into their heads by questioning their OWN logic.
Then (hopefully) they'll go home and think about how skeptical you were. Their thoughts might look something like this:
Help them to start questioning things. To start thinking of alternative solutions. To make them think that THEY'RE the ones who came up with the idea. And when they DO come up with the idea, it's because you planted that initial seed of doubt, Inception-style.
And if and when they decide to change their mind, it's because THEY decided to change their mind (INCEPTION!!).
But beware: your attempted seed of doubt STILL might not work. We'll chat about this in a bit.
Okay, Let's Review
Here are those five steps again, summarized:
1. Put aside your pride and remain respectful.
2. Adjust your argument to their beliefs.
3. Pick your battles and know when to concede.
4. Start from a common ground (and connect emotionally).
5. Don't uproot the garden, just plant a few seeds.
So that's it! Congratulations. You've made it through.
Unfortunately, none of the advice we've discussed today is guaranteed to be successful. These five steps are certainly helpful, sure. But there are just some people out there who are impossible to talk to no matter how hard you try. And even if you follow all five steps PERFECTLY, the other person might STILL get angry and start yelling.
Why? Because some people are rocks.
Just keep this in mind.
I Know a Good Conversation When I See One!
So, HOW do you know when a conversation is successful (or at least has the OPPORTUNITY to be successful)?
Unfortunately, you won't really know. Not unless the person outright says, "Wow, you are correct. I've changed my mind". You won't even know if you've TRULY planted a seed of doubt.
But, you WILL know the conversation has the potential to change the anti-reasoner's mind if YOU come away from the conversation feeling closer with the anti-reasoner. Because if YOU come away feeling closer with the anti-reasoner, then that means the anti-reasoner probably came away feeling closer with YOU.
However, if you come away feeling angry and distant with the anti-reasoner...well, that means that the anti-reasoner probably came away feeling angry and distant with you as well. Which means you probably weren't very successful at changing their mind.
Remember: A friendly and welcoming person is more convincing than a cold and argumentative one. And even if you think the person is the stupidest person you've EVER met, it's important that you at least feel a little closer with them at the end of your conversation.
Pushing an anti-reasoner away is probably the worst thing you could do. It subconsciously influences them to vote for shitty politicians, to demonize people on the other end of the political spectrum, and to promote anti-intellectualism.
And you DON'T want that, do you? So, put aside your pride, adjust your argument to their belief, pick your battles, identify a common ground, go plant those seeds, and create a better world for all of us!
Disclaimers and Additional Reading
If you have any strong thoughts or feelings on the topic of dealing with anti-reasoners, or if I've gotten ANYTHING completely wrong, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, if you're really interested in reading more about how to talk to people who just won't listen to data, facts, and basic common-sense, here are a couple of sources that might help you on the next step of your journey:
See you next week!
Eric Prince is the creator and operator of howwegottonow.com, a platform designed to provide content and context on the most important events happening today. Eric graduated with his Masters of Public Policy from the University of Virginia in 2018 before moving to New York City for a career in nonprofit fundraising. He quit his job in 2020 with the hope of starting a blog and traveling the world (really poor timing here...). While waiting for the world to open back up, Eric enjoys the daily NYT crossword puzzle, underlining entire paragraphs in books, and drinking way too much coffee.
Emily Tokarowski received her B.A. in environmental studies & communication from Stonehill College and her M.S. in STEM entrepreneurship from the University of Notre Dame. She currently works at Neighborhood Sun, a start-up organization bringing shared-community solar energy to people who don't have access to rooftop solar. She is a self-described nature and innovation nerd, which certainly explains her background. When not powering our world with the sun's rays, she can be found at any local brewery, patiently waiting to pet all the dogs, and making (quite terrible) puns.
Key words: Problems we face in the world, Current events, Blogs about current events, Global innovation forum, Context for world issues, Issues we face today, Non partisan blogs, Blog about social issues, Understanding social issues, Cultural context.