Paul Wesslund

Relationships, not facts, are what persuade people

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The longer you live the more you no doubt notice that when you list all the well-reasoned explanations why you’re right and the other person is wrong it never does any good.

You’re not the first to figure that out. Not surprisingly social scientists have studied that tendency. Turns out your arguments not only don’t persuade people to your side, these days especially they make things worse. We’ve all had that experience.

The futility of debating the issues showed itself to me in an unusual way through a church project. I’m in a group of United Methodists who would like to change the current international church policy that opposes same-sex weddings and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

Arguing doesn’t work

In a phone call with a local church minister, as we discussed steps we hoped could change the church doctrine, he referred to the Kleber Verses.

Now I know that Bible scripture is cited in different ways by Christians with various views on homosexuality and other sexual orientations. I know there are famously six passages in the Bible that are often quoted as verifying beyond doubt that homosexuality is a sin. I also know people on the other side, whose thinking aligns more with mine, who cite scripture that welcomes all people.

But I’d never heard of the Kleber Verses. And I was too embarrassed to ask. So I made a note to search Google, and faked my way through the rest of the phone call.

The internet was no help. I could’t even find anything under different spellings.

So in our next conversation I swallowed my pride and asked. I had to swallow harder that I’d expected. There are no Kleber or even Klaber Verses. He was referring to “clobber verses,” as in, I clobber you over the head with my cherry-picked scripture, and you do the same to me.

Well that wasn’t as high-minded a definition as I’d expected, but it pretty accurately describes the reality and the pointlessness of a lot of discourse these days.

My church group has been listening to people who have been organizing for decades over Christian doctrine on sexuality. They advise that no one gets persuaded by even the most cleverly articulated Bible verse. Faith, they advise, doesn’t come from a snippet of scripture, but from the traditions people grow up with, and their wider understandings of spirituality, and of life.

Persuasion through personal relationships

So the path to bringing our church together is not through amassing and pointing to the tallest stack of scholarly works, but through personal relationships. 

That lesson about the persuasive power of human contact also applies to the wider world outside my church. David Brooks wrote about that in his New Year’s Eve column in The New York Times.

He called 2020 “the year that broke the truth.” No one, it seemed, cared a whit about what was real. He cites researchers who find that “if you tell someone their facts are wrong, you don’t usually win them over; you just entrench their false belief.”

Change happens, researchers say, when people land in a new environment. Brooks says, “Real change seems to involve putting bodies from different groups in the same room, on the same team and in the same neighborhood.”

That takes me back to a 2019 movie, The Best of Enemies, based on a book by Osha Gray Davidson. It tells the story of a black activist and a local Ku Klux Klan leader forced into working together to come up with a way to integrate the town’s high school.

That kind of cooperation might seem like naive fantasy. But here’s the thing—the book is nonfiction.

Maybe we should be Mr. Spock-like rational creatures making our life choices based on the weighing of the facts. But we’re not. What influences us, what we value, is other people. Science, and your own experience, show that the surest way to change someone’s mind is to spend time with them.

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