How to persuade people who disagree with you

In any discussion or debate, it helps to understand relevant facts as well as how the beliefs and preferences of others differ from yours.

“No, you don’t understand!!”

Jane, a professor, was totally flustered trying to convince her friend, Jack, also a professor, that the current system of training PhD students is outdated and needs to be changed.

“Jane, we train PhD students to develop many skills: technical, writing, speaking, and managing complex projects with multiple collaborators.  PhD students are pushed to achieve excellence in research and teaching.  They are very well equipped to thrive in the modern economy,” said Jack.

“Yes, Jack, I agree that PhD students are very talented.  That doesn’t mean they are able to get jobs.  There aren’t enough university jobs for all the PhDs we produce, and there aren’t enough relevant jobs in industry and government where the remaining PhDs can find employment,” replied Jane.

“Jane, I know PhDs sometimes have to work to find jobs.  But anyone with moderate persistence and dedication will find a job somehow.  It won’t be that hard for them.  Anyone with a PhD who really struggles to find a job is probably just an abrasive personality, or doesn’t use deodorant or something.”

“Jack, you know that’s not true.  Over one-third of PhD graduates in the United States have no job at graduation, not even a postdoc.  Some PhDs who do have postdoc offers are only taking the postdoc position because they couldn’t find anything else.  The lack of alignment between PhD training and the skills the job market seeks in today’s economy is a serious problem.”

“Jane, no reasonable person with a PhD will have trouble finding a job somewhere.  Never.  Our system does not need to be changed to make PhDs more marketable.  They are already the most qualified, most desirable job candidates in the world.”

Jane and Jack continued this discussion for a while.  Neither of them really saw the other person’s perspective.  They agreed to disagree and moved onto other topics.

What happened here?  How come two intelligent people, Jane and Jack, can’t convince each other to even understand each other’s viewpoints?  Why do they disagree so strongly, and why are they unable to find any common ground?

In all debates, there are a few different types of information in play: (1) facts that both sides agree on, (2) beliefs that both sides share, (3) beliefs that the two sides don’t agree on, and (4) preferences of both sides.

I’ve seen a lot of debates where facts, beliefs, and preferences are all mixed together, leading to long battles that don’t really promote mutual understanding of each other’s viewpoints.  I’ve often felt that business meetings, research discussions, political debates, and difficult conversations would benefit from a clearer separation between facts, beliefs, and preferences.  This more organized approach may not resolve difficult issues quickly, but it could at least remove some of the barriers to mutual understanding that typically stifle communication.  It’s a lot easier to resolve a conflict, or even win, if you understand where your opponent is coming from, than if you simply view the opponent as arbitrary and irrational.

Let’s break down Jane’s and Jack’s facts, beliefs, and preferences to see if there is a more productive way for them to talk.

Jane knows certain facts, such as the proportion of PhDs who graduate without jobs, the existence of several PhDs who struggled to get jobs, and some patterns regarding what makes people employable.  Jane and Jack both know people with PhDs who thrived in their post-PhD careers and who struggled in their careers.  Jack knows certain traits of people who have thrived in their careers that individuals who struggled did not exhibit, in his view.  Let’s assume Jane and Jack have shared the relevant facts with each other and that they agree on these facts.

Despite their intense disagreement, Jane and Jack do agree on a number of things.  For example, they both seem to believe the PhD degree is important enough that it should either be pursued or adjusted, not removed from existence.  They may also agree that a university education is generally valuable, that there are benefits to obtaining a PhD degree in its current forms, and that there will be challenges in people’s careers whether or not they obtain a PhD.  They may agree that a PhD does not easily lead to jobs, and that some effort is needed on the part of the PhD-holder to actually get job offers, beyond just having a PhD degree.

The sources of disagreement in most debates, in my experience, seem to come primarily from a difference in beliefs and preferences.  It seems that strong beliefs and preferences determine people’s views on an issue more than facts.  Everyone, at times, uses their beliefs and preferences as a litmus test to separate the trustworthy facts from the unreliable ones.  Jane may believe, for example, that PhDs don’t have much control over how employers evaluate their PhD work, while Jack may believe that PhDs have a great deal of control over presenting their background in a way that lands many job offers.  Jane may prefer that universities take on the responsibility of making their graduates easily employable while Jack might prefer that the responsibility of making students employable should lie with the students, not with their universities or their professors.

So, could this decomposition of facts, common beliefs, and differences in beliefs and preferences, lead to a more productive discussion that doesn’t get locked in an irreconcilable argument?  Let’s consider an alternative way the discussion could progress.

Jane: “A third of the nation’s PhDs have no job at graduation.  I think a PhD degree is valuable, but the economy has shifted.  There aren’t enough faculty jobs for all our PhDs to find employment in academia.  I’ve seen many, many PhDs struggle to find employment compared to my students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  It makes me sad and I wish our universities could do something differently to help these students have an easier time getting jobs when they graduate.”

Jack: “Yeah, it does seem a lot of PhDs struggle to get jobs.  But I also know many PhDs who eventually do find jobs and have successful careers.  The particularly resourceful, resilient students seem not to struggle much though.  I wish we could have our PhD graduates be highly resilient and persistent, so they could get lots of job offers despite some challenges, and maybe even get a thrill in their triumph over these obstacles.  It’d be nice if the PhD degree made people magically get jobs with zero effort, but I’d prefer that we not change our PhD programs just to make PhDs more employable right now, since it could diminish the top-notch research focus of our students, and I’d prefer to have the PhD institution be something more constant, more stable, and less chaotically being adjusted to economic fluctuations.  You never know, what if PhDs suddenly become very desired hires due to some changes in public opinion?”

Notice what happened in this example discussion.  Jane and Jack decomposed their arguments into facts, beliefs, and preferences, and separated where they agree from where they disagree.  Is the argument resolved?  Not necessarily.

In many cases, they might lay to rest the topics they’ve resolved, where they understand the facts and understand where their beliefs and preferences differ.  But then they may focus on a portion of the argument where they strongly differ in their preferences, where new facts may shed light on why their preferences differ.  For example, Jane and Jack could now focus on why each of them prefers that the responsibility for making PhDs employable lies primarily with the PhDs or primarily with the universities.  They may debate what the role of a university really is: to simply educate students and give them tools that may be useful in their long-term careers, or to make students employable in the short-term, or both?  What might be the pros and cons of changing PhD programs to fit the current economic climate versus keeping it more exclusively focused on narrow research areas?

So, while I said that breaking down each person’s facts, beliefs, and preferences into things they agree and disagree on could lead to a more productive discussion, that doesn’t guarantee that one discussion will resolve all disagreements.  They may find subsections of their discussion that lead to additional, more detailed, nuanced disagreements for which they could use further dialogue: they could again go into the facts, beliefs and preferences that influence their views on these subtopics.

This is where many of us could use a reminder that one discussion may not be enough to resolve a complex disagreement, but that doesn’t mean the argument is irreconcilable or not worth debating.  It just means that there is a lot for all of us to learn, and we’ll learn faster if we try to really understand the other person’s beliefs and preferences, how they differ from our own, and most importantly, keep respectful relationships with people so we can continue many more of those stimulating, educational discussions!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *