In my work managing a soil and water conservation district and representing the Pacific Region of NCDEA, I get a lot of time behind the wheel of my car. That is thinking time, and most recently, I’ve been thinking about how we engage our customers.
What have we been doing?
I think most conservation folks try to convince land managers to take a particular conservation action by making the most factual argument they can. That’s understandable since most conservation planners I know graduated with a science / natural resources / agriculture degree. Logical arguments based on research and facts count for a lot in college. In the real world, though, maybe not as much.
Facts don’t matter
Once a person forms a belief, they resist changing it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In a New Yorker article titled Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds, the author notes:
Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.
Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted.
Social media exchanges
It’s a new age where social media interaction is becoming the norm, not the exception. We have evolved from face-to-face conversations to written letters, then emails, and now social media exchanges.
Social engagement is a tool that conservation district people are using more and more to try to engage and convince land managers. One thing to be careful of in social media exchanges is how much you engage folks.
According to an article titled How to Change Someones Mind published by the Washington Post, some back-and-forth can be persuasive, but once you exceed five exchanges, you are unlikely to change someone’s point of view:
After five rounds of back-and-forth comments between the original poster and the challenger, the challenger has virtually no chance of receiving a delta, they write. “Perhaps while some engagement signals the interest of the [original poster], too much engagement can indicate futile insistence.” One reddit user summed it up like this: “Lesson being that if you haven’t convinced someone after four replies each, your argument isn’t gonna be the one to move them.”
What can you do?
An article in Scientific American titled How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail addresses trying to convince someone to change what they believe.
If corrective facts only make matters worse, what can we do to convince people of the error of their beliefs? From my experience,
- keep emotions out of the exchange,
- discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum),
- listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately,
- show respect,
- acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and
- try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.
People are going to hold onto what they believe as long as they can, even when facts don’t support their belief. What I concluded as I was driving recently was a simple-to-say but hard-to-do four-step process of communicating with customers:
- Capture their attention
- Engage their mind
- Touch their heart
- Address the issues closest to their heart
If facts won’t change someone’s mind, then we need to look deeper at what motivates that person.
1 – Capture their attention
Use whatever tools you have to get a response. Social media, mailers, phone calls, county fair, billboards, potluck meals, community BBQs: whatever works. Without a response, you can’t engage them. Without engagement, it’s a one-way broadcast, not a two-way conversation.
2 – Engage their mind
This is where facts come into play. Use the facts that you have. Listen for their objections. The hard part is trying to listen to what they are not saying, i.e., what they are leaving out. A little probing may reveal what is really important to them.
3 – Touch their heart
Use what you discover about what is most important to them to create a link to the conservation issue. For example, we often talk to horse owners about pasture management, addressing mud-and-manure problems, etc. Rarely do we talk about the health and happiness of their horses. Talking about what is most important to them makes contact at a deeper, more emotional level.
4 – Address the issues closest to their heart
Continuing the example of horse owners, a difficult truth for many of us to accept is that horse owners care more about their animals than they do about their pastures. Recast your conservation conversation around what is important to them instead of what is important to you.
For example, if improving pasture conditions does not resonate, talk about how better management will result in more feed, fewer flies, and better animal condition.
If controlling mud doesn’t seem important, talk about hoof health, eliminating animal suffering, and reducing vet bills.
Actions that are motivated by what is most important to the person are more likely to actually happen.
What do you do?
How do you engage people who seem to resist the conservation actions you are recommending? Share your thoughts below.