How do you deal with people who have not just a different opinion, but a dangerous one? I’m referring to those who believe in conspiracy theories or other misinformation about Covid-19. Their opinions lead to behavior that puts others at risk.
Dear Conspiracy Consternation,
I will address your question as it relates to beliefs, not behavior.
I’d like to begin by pointing out that you and those who you say believe in conspiracy theories have something in common: you both believe each other is dangerously misinformed.
This should cause you to pause. If it doesn’t—if you’re offended, or if you think that those who hold these opinions are wrong to believe you are misinformed—then you are part of the problem. You’re contributing to your own inability to “deal with,” as you put it, people who have a different opinion.
I’m speaking directly because I wish someone had been as direct with me when I needed. Recognizing your own contribution here will empower you to make a difference. So, wrestle with it if you must, but know that the sooner you take responsibility for your present challenge, the sooner you’ll be able to meaningfully converse with those of a different persuasion.
A point of clarification: I’m not defending dangerous beliefs or behavior. I’m not suggesting that every viewpoint is equally justified, that merely holding a perspective makes it rational or valid, or that one’s behavior is excusable because he or she believes it is. What I am suggesting is this: regardless of what the facts are or the truth is or whose opinion is more carefully developed or less dangerous, you will not be able to disagree meaningfully until you decide to own the problem.
Once you do that, look for common ground. I’ve already pointed out one belief you hold in common: the “other” is dangerously misinformed. I bet if you dig behind it you’ll find several common values—values of justice, truth, freedom, and safety.
And that is highly curious, don’t you think? You are in company with those who want to preserve similar if not the same values, and yet you find yourself at odds. So, get curious. You have a genuine marvel to investigate. Suspend any desire to instruct others in their beliefs and adopt instead the spirit of inquiry.
And be kind. Nothing has an equivalent power to deescalate a disagreement as genuine kindness. If you don’t feel kind, examine your opinions and see which are contributing. Then disarm yourself. Beliefs per se cannot harm you, they don’t always correspond to the behaviors we think they will, and judging another’s as dangerous doesn’t necessarily make them so. So, take courage and be willing to set yours aside as you explore those contrary to your own.
In short, make common ground your target, and kindness and curiosity your tools. In practice, that might look like this: “I gather that you and I have very different beliefs about Covid-19 and I’m curious to know what you think and how you came to your position. Would you be willing to talk? I also don’t want to argue. I’m genuinely curious and want to understand where you’re coming from.” Then listen, ask questions, highlight when you agree or sympathize with a position.
This simple formula—kindness, curiosity, common ground—will help you establish psychological safety. Once it’s clear you have safety, you can begin to disagree meaningfully. And it will be clear when you’ve established safety because you’ll begin to notice empathy and understanding instead of fear, disgust, or distrust. You might continue, “That’s interesting. I see it differently. Do you mind if I share my perspective? Tell me what you think about this.” If safety is threatened as you disagree—if parties get defensive or combative—come back to kindness, curiosity, common ground. This is the beginning of dialogue.
This approach, by the way, does not preclude you from being direct in your disagreement; it enables you to be so. You can be kind and curious and straightforward.
Our particular challenge today is that we live in era of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” “disinformation,” and conspiracy theories—an era that is called “post-truth”—and yet we fight each other with facts, or what we believe are facts. This is like firing cannonballs at each other in a gravitational vacuum: the weapon has no weight. Those who watch “fake news” don’t consider their news fake, and those who believe in so-called conspiracy theories don’t think they believe in “theories.” We will not reach each other with facts unless and until we reach out to each other.
Now, as simple as that is to read, I recognize the difficulty of doing what I’m suggesting. And yet I’m confident you can do it. Pick a case, put your trust in the principles I’ve outlined, and tread lightly but assuredly. I can attest to their efficacy. Like others I know, I’ve been able to use these ideas to disagree in a way that increased appreciation and respect for opposing viewpoints and the people who hold them. You can do likewise.
I hope this helps as you consider approaching people about their beliefs. But you also raised a point about behavior, and that is another matter. If you encounter dangerous behavior, please report it. Or speak up directly if it’s safe to do so. For tips on how to do that, check out this 90-second video from Joseph Grenny.