Pollyannaish as it may sound, three lines of social science research show that treating adversaries in positive, respectful ways can overcome resistance, replacing it with, if not agreement, mutual understanding.
First, research has documented that when researchers affirm people’s sense of self – for example, by inducing them to feel good about a strong personal value – they validate their worth as human beings. This global validation of their personal self-worth, unlike a verbal attack which provokes resistance, warms people’s hearts, opens their psychological pores and actually increases their receptivity to considering alternative views.Second, a strategy called motivational interviewing eschews hard-ball efforts to “get” someone to change an entrenched social attitude, recognizing this will only cause people to dig in their heels. Instead, change agents help people “find their own intrinsic motivation to change …. by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly,” as organizational psychologist Adam Grant observed in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year. The strategy in some cases has actually decreased prejudice toward illegal immigrants. Thirdly, in deliberative polling, pioneered by political scientist James Fishkin, a representative sample of citizens gather together for a weekend, talking among themselves about controversial political issues. Seeing each other as fellow human beings, rather than as polarized liberal or conservative caricatures, as occurs over social media, participants nod their heads, listen, change their opinions to reflect what they heard, and grow more tolerant.