Influencing people who don't share your perspective


Much has been written lately about falling business confidence and the almost stubborn rejection of it as an issue from the Beehive.

Some may accuse the Government of filtering out news it doesn’t like, but it highlights what is a huge challenge – how to change perceptions, whether you’re trying to influence the public or policy makers.

Though echo chambers are regarded as something of a truism, recent studies suggest only 8 per cent of people source their news from within their political comfort zone.

Social media and online search users – which includes almost every politician – get their news from a variety of sources including those that express opposing viewpoints that don’t match their perspective. They have a reasonable idea of current issues and debates.

However, efforts to push debate on issues such as business confidence or industrial relations reforms may entrench views rather than positively influence them. It’s well established people are so attached to their political identities they will devote extra cognitive resources to dismiss evidence contrary to their point of view.

Psychologists call this motivated reasoning. In short, we’re so motivated to affirm our pre-existing thinking that trying to persuade us we’re wrong makes us even more convinced that we’re right.

Another perspective comes from the psychology of “self-licensing” – the unconscious view that once we’ve demonstrated our open-mindedness to an issue, we’ve somehow earned the right to be more emphatic about our existing opinions. Because we’ve looked at and acknowledged the issue, we’ve empowered ourselves to reject it.

What does this mean for efforts to influence or persuade government to adopt or change ideas? After all, you can’t persuade if political decision-makers reject your perspective and become more entrenched in theirs.

A fact-based narrative doesn’t work if your facts are rejected due to pre-existing contrary beliefs. All the facts in the world about net environmental and social benefit won’t lead the current Government to overturn the ban on future oil and gas exploration. Nor will any amount of political optimism turn the dial on slumping business confidence.

The hallmark of effective engagement is that it’s tailored to the audience. It is essential to identify alignment or common ground on values supported by analysis of opportunities to achieve shared aspiration. Then there is an opportunity to build a fact-based narrative that has a chance to connect and be heard.