“It’s like we are solving a mystery together”

From “How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion” by David McRaney

Steve would tell me later that they had learned over many conversations that reasons, justifications, and explanations for maintaining one’s existing opinion can be endless, spawning like heads of a hydra. If you cut away one, two more would appear to take its place. Deep canvassers want to avoid that unwinnable fight. To do that, they allow a person’s justifications to remain unchallenged. They nod and listen. The idea is to move forward, make the person feel heard and respected, avoid arguing over a person’s conclusions, and instead work to discover the motivations behind them. To that end, the next step is to evoke a person’s emotional response to the issue.

Steve said he’d love to get Martha’s opinion about a video and pulled out his phone with a clip already playing. In it, a woman told the camera that she got pregnant at twenty-two despite using birth control. She said she knew right away she wanted an abortion, that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with the man she was dating. She wanted to further her education before she had kids.

Martha seemed uneasy. After evoking negative emotions like this, canvassers ask people if their opinion has changed, and they re-ask them where they are on the scale of zero to ten. Sampling their newly salient feelings, people often move a few numbers. Martha said she was definitely still a five. If she had moved, he would have asked her why. But since she didn’t, he asked her what the video made her think. She said she believed the woman should have discussed her feelings about kids with her partner before they had sex, and that they should have used protection. 

In training, they said it was here in the conversation that a deep canvasser must perform their most delicate work. Even if a person’s rating don’t move, the canvasser knows people have begun to think about their emotions and wonder, “Why do I feel this way?” After a twinge of unresolved introspection, people become highly motivated to sort out their feelings. They will then produce a new set of justifications, weaker perhaps than before. That encourages a conversation. Instead of arguing, the canvasser listens, helping the voter untangle their thoughts by asking questions and reflecting back their answers to make certain they are hearing them correctly. If people feel heard, they further articulate their opinions and often begin to question them. 

“It’s like we are solving a mystery together,” Steve would later tell me. As people explain themselves, they begin to produce fresh insights into why they feel one way or another. This indicates they’ve engaged in active processing. Instead of defending, they begin contemplating, and once a person is contemplating, they often produce their own counterarguments, and a newfound ambivalence washes over them.  If enough counterarguments stack up, the balance may tip in favor of change.

Steve moved to the next stage. According to the training, if he could evoke a memory from her own life that contradicted the reasoning she had shared, she might notice the conflict without him having to point it out. It would remain private, and she wouldn’t feel like Steve was challenging her. She’d be challenging herself. And if he threw his support behind the conflicting thoughts that favored the opinion he was there to champion, she might shift in the direction he wanted. But as the training emphasized, it’s a delicate maneuver because she might resolve the conflict in the other direction by further justifying her existing position instead.