Blog post

Encourage discussion, not defensiveness

9 min read
5 Feb 2013

Getting more people behind a cause you care about can be a great way to really multiply your impact. To do this you need to be able to communicate your ideas in a way that allows people to engage with them fully. But this isn't always easy. Rather than encouraging constructive discussion, presenting new ideas - especially about moral issues - can often spark confrontation.

I know a number of people have found this when talking about the fact they give x% of their income to charity. As soon as the idea is mentioned, rather than really listening, people often respond defensively; giving reasons why they don't do the same or why your suggestion is totally unreasonable. "I can't afford to save money/pay my mortgage and donate too", "You must be getting financial support from elsewhere if you're donating that much!", and similar responses seem common. As soon as these kind of defensive reactions slip in, all hopes of getting your point across are pretty much shattered.

Why is it so hard to communicate new or controversial ideas without provoking confrontation? How can you improve the way you frame your case to encourage discussion, not defensiveness?

What causes this defensive reaction?

The first thing to note is that we mostly have a strong desire, arguably a need, to believe that we are good, moral people(1). This means that if you present someone with a piece of information which seems to contradict that belief, they're not going to like it very much. Feeling like their own positive self-image is being threatened, people often tend to resent, rather than respect, moral behaviour in others(2). This is down to a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance(3): that feeling of discomfort you get when you realise the way you're behaving contradicts a view you hold of yourself(4).When you express to someone the view that "morally you should do/care about x" and they don't do x, you seem to be suggesting that their behaviour doesn't square with their view of themselves as being moral.

If your behaviour appears to conflict with a belief you have about yourself, there are three possible methods of resolution:

  1. Change your behaviour;
  2. Change your beliefs about yourself;
  3. Add new beliefs that justify your behaviour given your already existing beliefs about yourself.

Suppose you believe yourself to be a sensible, health-conscious person. One day, despite a great deal of medical advice to the contrary, you get into the habit of smoking. This causes quite an unpleasant feeling: you really do believe you're sensible and health conscious, but your smoking suggests the opposite. What can you do to resolve this?

  1. You could stop smoking;
  2. You could accept you're not as health conscious as you thought you were, after all;
  3. Or, you could attempt to justify your smoking to make it consistent with you being health-conscious: it's relaxing which has its own health benefits, the doctors have got it wrong, etc...

Faced with this choice, a lot of people seem to go for the third option. This isn't surprising. Changing your behaviour, especially if it means giving up something you enjoy, can be incredibly difficult. Accepting that you just don't have the positive traits you thought you did isn't that appealing either. Finding a way to justify your behaviour whilst retaining a positive self-image, therefore, might seem like the best of both worlds.

I think the reason people can be so defensive about moral issues is often similar to the reason people justify their bad habits. We (mostly) all believe we are good people. If someone points out that our behaviour doesn't square with that we can either a) change our behaviour - start donating more to charity, for example - which might at first seem to be a big sacrifice, b) accept we're not really a good person, or c) find some way to justify our behaviour. This is what people seem to be doing when they claim they can't reasonably afford to give money away, or try to find reasons why making such a suggestion is unreasonable, without necessarily giving it full consideration.

How can you communicate your cause to prevent this kind of reaction? There are two steps here that result in defensiveness: the unpleasant feeling of dissonance itself, and an attempt to resolve the conflict by justification. So there are two ways you might try to avoid confrontation: by communicating your ideas in a way that aims to minimise the dissonance caused to begin with, or by doing so in a way that encourages a different reaction to it.

Preventing the conflict

The first tactic would be to try and prevent the reaction altogether, by framing your case in a way that appears consistent with what the person you're speaking to already believes. If someone feels they can consider your view without compromising their view of themselves as a "good" person, they're much more likely to fully listen to what you're saying.

What to say:

"Most people want to do good, but just haven't been told some of the most important facts: like doing x can make a really big difference and is actually much easier than you might think."

What not to say:

"It's morally wrong not to do x, so anyone who doesn't do x can't be a good person."

"I don't think your behaviour fits with what you claim to believe: if you really believe that, you would do x."

Think positive: focus on consistency, not inconsistency. Highlight the fact that the behaviour you're suggesting is consistent with something the person already believes, and not on the fact that their current behaviour is inconsistent with it.

Encouraging a different reaction

To some extent, trying to advocate something (especially if it's controversial) is always going to provoke conflict in people. Rather than trying to prevent the conflict occurring altogether, you might focus on encouraging people to resolve it differently; by changing their behaviour rather than justifying it.

The good news is that there's evidence you can actually use cognitive dissonance to your advantage as an advocate. Several studies have found that groups who are made aware of an inconsistency in their attitudes and current behaviour are more likely to change their behaviour than those simply asked about their attitudes.(6),(7) For example, households given feedback about their high levels of water consumption combined with a reminder of a previously expressed belief in conserving water significantly decreased their water use relative to those simply given feedback on previous consumption.(8) This suggests that in some cases, being made aware that their current behaviour was inconsistent with their professed beliefs ("I am responsible in conserving water") actually made people more likely to take on board arguments for conserving, not less.

So how can you frame your case to change behaviour, not cause defensiveness? A few subtleties appear to make all the difference:

  1. Don't 'guilt trip'

Research has repeatedly shown that the more "guilt" nonprofits and commercial advertisers use, the less likely people are to take their messages on board.[^6] [^9] On the other hand, if people can come to realise themselves that their behaviour doesn't square with their values, they're much more likely to resolve this conflict by changing their behaviour than by justifying it.(6)

Why might this be? Recall that when you realise your behaviour contradicts some belief you have about yourself, this causes a "subjectively unpleasant phenomenon"(10) - that is, it doesn't feel very nice! If someone feels like you have caused this nasty feeling by trying to guilt-trip them, they're more likely to associate the feeling with you and your claims, and so seek to resolve it by dismissing them. If, on the other hand, a person is able to acknowledge that this nasty feeling is the result of an internal conflict, it seems more likely they'll try to resolve it internally by considering all angles, including the one you're presenting.(11)

  1. Keep it anonymous

Whilst you might think "naming and shaming" could encourage people take responsibility for their behaviour, it seems the opposite is true. According to a 1998 study, pointing out inconsistencies in peoples' behaviour is much more likely to encourage behaviour change if done anonymously.(12) Participants engaged in public advocacy about the importance of recycling, under one of three conditions:

  1. The first group listed their past failures to recycle anonymously,
  2. The second listed their past recycling failures and were personally identified,
  3. The third did not list past failures at all.

Both those in the first and third group increased their levels of recycling following the advocacy, with those in the first group changing behaviour more than those in the third. However, those in the second group afterwards actually demonstrated a reduced belief in the importance of recycling. This suggests that making people aware of inconsistencies in their beliefs and behaviour can motivate behaviour change, but only if done in the right way: like guilt-tripping people, holding them personally responsible doesn't seem to do the trick.

  1. Make it seem easy

Part of the reason people are often reluctant to change their behaviour is that it seems like a big sacrifice. Helping people to see that what you're suggesting isn't as difficult as they might think can therefore increase the chances they'll take it seriously. One good way to make something seem easy is to demonstrate that lots of other people are doing it, and that these other people are just like them.(13)

What to say:

"X is really easy to do, and can make a really big difference because..."

"Loads of people have started thinking about x/doing x, and here's why..."

What not to say:

"Doing x requires massive sacrifices, but it's really important."

"No-one else cares about this cause except me - please listen to me!"

(1): "Most of us have a need to see ourselves as reasonable, moral, and smart. When we are confronted with information implying we may have behaved in ways that are irrational, immoral, or stupid we will experience a good deal of discomfort" - see Aronson, E., T.D. Wilson, and R.M. Akert (1999): Social Psychology. Third Edition.

(2): Benoit Monin, Pamela J. Sawyer and Matthew J. Marquez (2008), "The Rejection of Moral Rebels: Resenting Those Who Do The Right Thing", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

(3): Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

(4): Research studies have been conducted supporting the hypothesis that subjectively unpleasant physiological arousal follows from cognitive dissonance: see Elliot, A. J., & Devine, P. G. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 382-394

(5): Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini

(6): See Nick Cooney's "Change of Heart", pp.134-5

(7): Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A. L., Winslow, M. P., and C. B. Fried (1994), "Inducing Hypocrisy as a Means of Encouraging Young Adults to Use Condoms.", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20, 116-128

(8): Aitken, McMahon, Wearing and Finlayson (1994) "[Residential Water Use: Predicting and Reducing Consumption](http://(", Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 2, 136-158

(9): Coulter, R., Pinto, M., (1995) "Guilt appeals in Advertising: What Are Their Effects?", Journal of Applied Psychology 80, 6, 697-705

(10): Elliot, A. J., & Devine, P. G. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 382-394

(11): There's arguably a kind of "shoot the messenger" effect going on here - a person who brings bad news or evokes negative emotions appears less likeable by association - see Robert Cialdini's Influence (especially Chapter 5, "Liking") for more on this.

(12): Fried, C. (1998) Hypocrisy and Identification With Transgressions: A Case of Undetected Dissonance, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 20, 2, 144-154

(13): See Chapter 4, "Social Proof", of Robert Cialdini's Influence