To Change Someone’s Mind, Stop Talking and Listen

By Nilofer Merchant

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Samar Minallah Khan, the feminist Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker, was enraged. Local tribal leaders were trading little girls as compensation for their male family members’ crimes.

These leaders, responsible for settling legal disputes in their villages, act as local judges. A longstanding practice was to address major crimes by “compensating” a harmed family with a daughter of the family doing the harm. The guilty father or uncle was then considered “free” and the village was told this issue was “resolved.” Samar thought this tradition, called swara, was horrendous — it forever changed a young girl’s life, through no fault of her own. But although she was angry, she realized she’d never get to the outcome she wanted if she led with that anger.

So she tried something else. First, she listened more than she talked. She listened to the religious (male) leaders explain the use of swara, and its benefits, and she asked how that tradition would have been interpreted by the Prophet Mohammad. She listened to the fathers and uncles who allowed their crimes to be expiated this way. And by listening, Samar learned so much that it enabled her to bridge a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of difference.

Samar had first assumed that the fathers whose crimes were being forgiven this way were happy to let their daughters suffer for their crimes, but when she listened to them, she heard that they were not. They wanted another way. She heard from local leaders that they placed an extremely high value on tradition. She heard from religious Muslim legal scholars that swara was a form of “vicarious liability,” which is not allowed in Islam. And finally, she heard that in earlier times, disputes were also resolved by sending a girl to an enemy’s family, but she didn’t stay there permanently; instead, she would be given gifts and then sent back to her parents’ home. All of this, she taped.

She convened local communities to watch these videos and talk with each other about the tradition and its implications. One by one, local tribal leaders changed what they considered true justice. They decided that swara could be replaced by monetary compensation. Samar created change not by selling her idea, but creating a way for everyone arrive at a new idea, together.

What Samar did was to ask people to share their perspective, without trying to convince them of hers. It sounds like something for a movie script, not necessarily practical advice for business leaders. But maybe it should be.

I found myself thinking, somewhat wistfully, of Samar the other day during a terrible, but not unusual, meeting. A leader had asked 30 of his best and the brightest to gather so that he could hear their input on what he perceived as a marketing gap. But the very design of the meeting meant he would be hearing very little: The agenda called for three hours of presentations and about 15 total minutes of Q&A (if none of the presentations ran over, that is).

I left feeling that he didn’t really want to listen, that what he wanted was to convince the 30 people present of his perspective so that we could become his mouthpiece and fix his “marketing gap” for him. And because of the format of the meeting, I left unconvinced that I wanted to do that.

Even though it doesn’t work very well, this approach is, of course, common — in any setting where one party is trying to convince another party to change, whether that’s in an organization, during a political debate, or at a contentious family dinner. Identify what key ideas could convince them. Find persuasive facts. Enthusiastically share. Beat their facts back with your facts.

This isn’t the way to create lasting change. The best way to sway others is not to tell them your answer, but to arrive at an answer — together. Listening is the key pathway to go from your idea to our idea. To reshape the idea as needed, and to ultimately create the kind of shared ownership that is needed for any idea to become a new reality.

The next time you head into a meeting where a major decision will be made, or important issue discussed, try the following exercise I’ve used to prepare for the workshops I run on innovation and leadership:

Find an index card or sheet of paper (a paper napkin will also do). On one side, write key ideas that could be useful for you to share. I say “could” because you will reevaluate any of it once you learn more. On the other side, brainstorm questions you want to ask and things you hope to learn.

For example, at last year’s Drucker Forum conference in Vienna, I was part of an executive round table with John Hagel, Julia Kirby, and Hal Gregersen to talk about “the power to innovate.” Before our session kicked off, I jotted down a handful of questions on the back of an index card:

Why are these executives attending our session? What is their motivation?
What is the core “power to innovate” problem at their firms? What does that specifically look like?
Do they think they have enough ideas, or too many ideas, or not good quality?
Is innovation, to them, a problem of idea selection, market connection or execution, or something else?
Can “innovation” be discussed in general terms — without a specific context — and have it be useful?
Who or what set of ideas are they listening to now about innovation? What is missing, or why is that idea set not working?

I didn’t end up asking all of these questions, but writing them down meant that I was primed to be curious, to listen for motivations, needs, and emotions. Developing a list of questions can help you be ready to really listen to what is actually going on.

Most of us don’t do that. Most of us listen to the degree we can understand points of agreement or disagreement, or to prepare what to say in response, rather than to learn. But when we do that, we’re not so much hearing other people as we are waiting for our turn to speak.

To listen is to pay attention to. Listening means stepping outside one’s own interests, to actually want to know more, and to care what others’ interests are. To not just hear words, but to pay attention to the underlying needs and frames of reference.

Which gets to why we aren’t already great listeners. We’re afraid that if we’re listening, we’re not advocating for our own ideas and why those ideas matter. We’re afraid we’re giving up on our convictions.

But we can all have more faith in ourselves. And each other.

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