At its most basic, the job of a knowledge worker is to take in information (sometimes as raw data, but often in many other forms as well) and synthesize it into a solution to the problem at hand. There is just one wrinkle, which is that you often need to convince people of your conclusion. Even though you did the exploration, they are often the one with the power to make a decision. There is nothing more frustrating than when they trust their own biases, unrelated experiences, or irrelevant anecdotes over your hard work. Fortunately, there is some things you can do to get your point heard and even accepted. One of the most important techniques has little to do with your presentation skills, and everything to do with how you ask questions.
Your First Instinct Is Wrong (What? Are you Feeling Defensive?)
it is tempting to just lay out all of your evidence, which you believe is compelling enough to make the case. However, researchers Charles Lord, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper did a study where they presented people with evidence contrary to their views on the death penalty. They were surprised to find that the evidence presented pushed the subject’s opinion further in that direction. Rather than consider the evidence put in front of them, they immediately jumped into the process of attempting to discredit it however they could. After just a few seconds of this process, subjects were left even more certain of their initial position (full paper here). To understand this, it’s critical to pay attention to the details of the methodology of the study. The subjects had contrary evidence shoved in front of them, like a challenge instead of the discussion. It’s like you threw a ball towards their head – there wasn’t time for anything but a self-preservation instinct.
Yale Researchers Find a Subtle Twist
Will any attempts to change someone’s mind with well researched evidence simply make them defensive? This seems awfully depressing. Fortunately, two researchers from Yale University conducted a study that demonstrates a potential path forward, which is focused much more on creating a conversation than asserting logical dominance. In the first part of the study, they had people rate their understanding of the topic, something as simple as how a toilet works. Then, they asked people to did a detailed step-by-step explanation of that topic. As anyone who has gotten tangled up trying to answer a five year olds question knows, it can be amazing how many steps of your understanding turn out to be sketchy when truly examined. In fact, people rated their understanding of that exact same topic much worse after being forced to think it through. (full psychology paper here)
Take a moment to think about that, it’s amazing. I haven’t thought about how a toilet works… well I won’t gross you out with the story about the last time I had to think about how a toilet worked. But (fortunately) it has been quite a while. So it would be rational for me, if stopped on the street, to say that I didn’t really have a good understanding. After a few minutes of thinking it through, you’d think that my level of understanding would rise. The truth turned out to be just the opposite! We’re all walking around with an over inflated confidence in how much we understand the world. Even the most cursory self-examination can pop the bubble.
How to Apply This Surprising Outcome to Prove Your Point
You can’t just order someone else to undergo undergo this self-examination, particularly if they are your manager or another stakeholder, but it’s perfectly reasonable to ask them to explain their position. There is one more study they can help us do this properly. Philip Fernbach, of the University of Colorado, asked people for the strengths of their views on several US political issues (abstract here). He then asked half of them to provide reasons for their views. Unsurprisingly, these people subsequently held similar or stronger after finishing a list of their reasons. The other half of the participants were asked to provide a step by step causal analysis of how the policy they believed in it have its intended effect. This is much like asking people how pushing the toilet handle makes it flush. At in the last experiment, this actually softened their views. Simply being forced to explain, in detail, how their idea would work (critically, not hand waving about why it would work) made all the difference. As a bonus of course, you may realize that they have a relevant piece of information that you hadn’t come across yet!
It’s really fascinating to see how these very similar can yield such different results. Keep this in mind next time you walk into a room, determined to prove that you are right. Ask plenty of detailed questions, note facts you came across and research when appropriate, and you got a great chance of finding the best solution, wherever it may be!