When working with groups looking at prejudice and bias, one of the most frequent questions I get is:
But how can I get them to change their bias and behaviour?
Naturally, when an individual expresses a prejudice in a harmful way, people can feel the need for them to change their behaviour. However, the other person doesn’t always see it this way. In fact, they often defend their position and attempt to assert it more powerfully. Recent election campaigns have seemed to promote this behaviour – no matter which camp you are in, defensiveness and ridicule are par for the course.
This natural defensiveness poses a number of challenges when working to change perceived biases. So I decided to look at what we are asking of someone when we deem their prejudice is bad and try to “help” them change. Assuming we’ve managed to jump the yawining chasm and engage in a conversation, what we are asking is,
- Know they are biased;
- Want to change it (by far the biggest challenge), and then
- Know how to change them
If that wasn’t difficult enough, although acts of discrimination and hurt are usually delivered by people, they are all culturally informed and sustained. The segregation of blacks and whites in the US and South Africa did more to reinforce the prejudices than the other way around. Growing up in such a situation can make one’s own bias:
- Difficult to identify
- Seem impersonal and therefore decrease perceptions of personal responsibility (ie. colonial guilt)
- Even if the person does want to change, they may feel like they are betraying the culture where they learned the bias, which can create shame as well as threaten their sense of belonging.
To illustrate this last point, or the hidden dynamic of bias, imagine the following:
If a pick-pocket goes past a bulging wallet and doesn’t take it, they may well feel guilt or shame. After all, according to Fagin, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two.”
In the world of pick-pocket culture, not taking the wallet is not only a missed opportunity, but a challenge to identity and belonging. It is almost shameful to a pick-pocket!
The point being that if your group does things in a certain way, and that group is like family, then, if you do something different, you will feel guilty about it – even if you don’t want to feel guilty, and even when you know it’s “right.”
It is this last point that I would like to think about before going trying to “enlighten” the other person’s stance or viewpoint. Be careful, because you are also talking about their culture.
What would you do if someone came and told you,
“Only idiots lock their houses! If you want to get anywhere in life, you should leave all the doors unlocked in order to let strangers in who might bring new gifts or stories that you and your family really want…”
You’d probably tell them they were crazy – at best.
If you are short on real-life examples, a cursory look at the language of the recent American presidential candidates will give you plenty of examples of how “stupid” and “crazy” the other is. So is it helping?
What might be a better approach?
Based on my years of mediating and running groups, here’s what I suggest.
- Identify what’s in it for them (benefit)
- Let them know you are interested in their well-being (care)
- Check your own assumptions and prejudices (authenticity)
First, identify the pay-off or benefit for the person. This will help re-humanise the other. This may not be obvious, or even conscious, but at some level, the person is getting something back for having that point of view. (see Kegan & Lacey, “Immunity to Change” and Dan Ariely “Pay-off” for more on this). Nobody does anything that is 100% bad for them. Find out what the pay-offs are and speak to those first.
These could be anything from friends and belonging; safety and the avoidance of shame; certainty in the face of ambiguity and threat; or even just a good way to have an argument or get some attention. There is always a payoff.
Second, let the person know you have their back. This is basic care.
No one cares how much you know, unless they know how much you care.
If you are interested in changing them for your benefit only, chances are they will tell you to take a long walk off a short pier… Its not going to work.
Finally, be authentic. Start by checking your own assumptions and prejudice. Asking someone to check their own without you doing it first, is not only hypocritical, it also lacks integrity. And no one likes being lectured by a hypocritical dupe! To do this authentically, to really look at your own biases takes courage and letting go. It’s important to know what that is like before expecting someone else to do it
So once you’re aware of some of your own fears, here are some steps you might try:
- Find out more about their world and situation – understand the context for why that view exists. AND importantly, let them know you understand that.
- Find out about the person’s hopes, needs and wishes. Identify the persons aspirations and speak to those
- And, if possible, find a way to help that person get the pay-off easier or in a different way.
– and with Christmas coming up, I am sure you can find some relatives to practice with. You might even get them to do it to you.
Thanks for reading – please comment below if you have your own thoughts on the subject.