Facts Are Not Enough

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It often feels like the world is going backwards. Facts are clearly not enough, so what can we do to change hearts and minds?

I have been talking with people about how to change hearts and minds for a long time, and along the way have picked up what seem to be some insights into the nature of the problem, and some thoughts which may contribute towards an answer.  As always, let's regard this as a starting point to be improved.


You cannot make someone understand or believe something; what you can do is to provide a context and environment in which they are able to consider the possibility of changing.

We all have physical needs: sustenance (air, water and food) and safety, but our social needs normally occupy a much higher position on our list of concerns; in particular, nobody wants to be defeated, controlled, shunned, or shamed.  Safety is about avoiding these problems, as well as avoiding physical risks.

And beyond the social needs there may be some deeper desires: to see myself as a person of insight and integrity, someone who cares about truth and justice, someone who continues to learn and grow as a person.

Aspects of an Answer

Connect as a human being, a friend, as someone who can be trusted; ideally, connect as someone who is interesting and fun to talk with.

Your aim is for them to find the conversation with you both enjoyable and enriching; follow the showbiz maxim, and leave them wanting more.

Never ask them to take your word for it; never rely on sources of authority they will not recognise; ideally, only talk about things where you can point to evidence they will recognise and respect.

Don’t argue: telling someone they are wrong will push them to defend their position. If there are standard battle lines, stay away from them; approach the subject from a different direction.

Listen, ask questions – good questions. What do they do, what do they care about, what do they believe, and why? Don’t only show an interest in them: be genuinely interested in them – in them as a person, not only in them as someone whose mind you want to change.

Affirm and approve what you can of their interpretations and beliefs.

Learn from them: what knowledge and experience do they have, which you could benefit from; what questions do you have, to which they might be able to help you find an answer?

Find common ground: discover where you agree, where you are on the same side.

Discover their values: what is important to them, and what is less important?

Talk about your values; try to find shared values.

Don’t try to talk about things which are deep and significant to them without their agreement and cooperation. You can raise a subject, but if they don’t follow, don’t pursue it.

If they share struggles, sympathise and identify where you can; don’t try to offer a quick answer to something they have wrested with for a long time. If it is important, they will come back to it.

Do talk about things which interest them, and, when they are willing, things which have some importance to them. You have to earn the right to talk about difficult and painful subjects – but if you show yourself to be sensitive and trustworthy, people are willing to take that risk surprisingly often.

It may be helpful to briefly identify groups you both disagree with – but don’t focus on or spend much time on them. You can bond over a shared enemy, but it is a fragile union.

Talk about your own experience, and how you feel about it: try to find things which they can verify, if they wish, and which they can identify with.

Talk about how your beliefs connect with your experiences, your feelings and your values. Where are you exploring, seeking to grow and discover? Be honest about your uncertainties, doubts and outstanding questions. Accept any inconsistencies they identify: you are not perfect, you are still working things out.

Ask about how their beliefs connect with their experiences, feelings and values. If it appears that they don’t connect well, don’t assume that this helps your position, but let them reflect on what they said. If you come back to the subject, talk about your lack of understanding – tell them that you don’t understand how their beliefs connect with their experiences, feelings and values.

Discuss other ways of seeing things – several other ways, not only your own. Ask about possibilities, explore “what if?”s.

Help them to see that everybody’s life is a continual act of faith: absolute certainty does not exist (not even in maths and science), so all of us have to make assumptions and decide who to trust (and where to trust them), but we also need to be willing to test our assumptions and re-evaluate our assumptions when things change, or when new information comes to light.


(You can download the initial version of this article as a PDF)


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