Management

The American View: Consider the Guardians

Some people will fight to the death to prevent having their minds changed. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger laments that working in Security Training requires you to gingerly suppress users’ instinctive emotional defences before you can get them to change their behaviour.

If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the recent abysmal American political landscape, it’s the nationwide realization that most people don’t actually communicate with one another. They talk at one another without making an effort to understand each other’s point of view. This isn’t a new societal phenomenon; rather, it’s how we’ve always been. The realization of it is an unpleasant epiphany for millions of people who previously believed (against all evidence to the contrary) that their unshakable moral certainty alone would convert other people’s opinions without any need for logic, facts, compelling arguments, or common decency. Turns out ‘shouting’ alone is insufficient.

When I teach this principle to my Scouts (as part of the Communications Merit Badge), I tell them a tale that I call the ‘botched book exchange’ to illustrate my point.

This story took place back in the mid 1980s. My biology lab partner was a brilliant girl that I’ll call ‘Daphne.’ [1] She and I had been friends for years and regularly teased each other about our differing interests and activities. One day before class, I noticed a trashy pulp paperback in Daphne’s bookbag and gave her the usual amount of grief over her awful taste in literature. She responded in kind, rebuking me for reading a news magazine instead of something ‘uplifting.’

After a few minutes of light banter, we struck a deal: we’d each select a representative book from our respective ‘guilty pleasure’ genre for the other person to read. Then, after we had both been exposed to the other’s tastes, we’d explain why we liked these samples so as to try to better understand each other’s perspective.

To be fair, nearly everything else was more interesting than high school biology … lectures.

Daphne gave me a tame romance paperback about beautiful-and-wholesome (yet intelligent, confident, and bold) young woman in 1930s New York who has to choose between two rival suitors. The content was PG-rated at most; no actual bodices were ripped. I know, because I read the whole thing … and I took notes. Lots of notes. I was more diligent about diagramming Daphne’s swoon-book than I was anything from our English Literature assignments. I disliked her book, but I took our challenge seriously.

In turn, I gave Daphne my copy of Richard Austin’s The Guardians, a typical post-nuclear-war military thriller. I thought it was more realistic and technical than most of the young adult and pulp books in the genre, so she’d be more likely to read it through to the end. I’d devoured it in two days, so I figured that Daphne could too. She was a far better student than I was, so her assignment ought to have been a piece of cake.

It wasn’t. A month after we started our guilty pleasure literature challenge, Daphne sheepishly admitted that she hadn’t read my book. When I asked why, she confessed that she’d gotten confused by a mention of ‘NATO’ in the book’s prologue and then completely gave up.

I was flummoxed. Daphne hadn’t make any effort to get past the first minor obstacle in the book. We didn’t have the Internet back then, but it wasn’t a hard concept to understand. This was the height of the Cold War, after all; most any sane adult could explain what NATO was and discuss its rivalry with the Warsaw Pact states.

Given how much the US government had hyped up the ‘inevitable' Soviet nuclear attack, it boggled my mind how ANYONE could be oblivious to the global military situation

More importantly, the geopolitics weren’t essential to the plot. Daphne could have skipped past the unfamiliar reference and dug straight into the story proper. War breaks out, some military men rescue the President, and adventure happens in a nuclear wasteland. Unlike a Tom Clancy techno-thriller, it was possible to ignore all of the hardware references and simply lose yourself in the action. Daphne didn’t even try.

I was miffed. I’d done my part in good faith. I wanted to understand her perspective because I liked and respected her as a person. I assumed that she was like me in that regard, and therefore perceived her refusal to reciprocate as a deliberate insult; it seemed like she didn’t respect me enough to even try to fulfil an easy promise.

I seethed … until I talked it over with my buddy Cristobol. [2] He mused that Daphne probably never intended to follow through. He pointed out that while she wasn’t a bad person – far from it! –in all the years that we’d know her, she’d never seemed interested in changing her mind or in challenging her convictions … ever. Daphne was sweet, but she didn’t engage with others on controversial issues, current events, or personal perspectives. She politely shied away from arguments … especially other people’s.

Cristobol argued that Daphne’s outlook was common in our community. Many of the people we knew – children and adults alike – never entered into conversation to honestly evaluate another speaker’s position. They were always RIGHT™ so anyone who didn’t fully agree with them was WRONG™. There was no room for nuance, or perspective, or personal experience, or error. Therefore, ‘discussions’ were simply loud, one-way deliveries of position data, like stabbing an elevator button.

I took Cristobol’s advice and watched how Daphne interacted with others and noticed how rigidly she and her friends defended their beliefs. They were as quick to enter full-defens over trivial things (like which soda brand tasted best) as they were over core existential issues (like the existence of God). Unlike her friends, though, Daphne never got angry. She never lashed out or attacked the other speaker. She always politely disengaged before anyone’s mind could be changed.

I could never stay mad at her for long. She was frustrating sometimes, but always sincerely friendly. 

When I share this story with my Scouts, I emphasize that Daphne isn’t a ‘villain’ in the tale. She’s not someone to be made fun of. If anything, she was (and, I imagine, still is) a role model for what we want to see in a genuinely nice person. That she didn’t want her perspective changed was less a violently-irrational repudiation of the world and more a misplaced confidence that she had all of the facts and didn’t need to change.

I emphasize that many of the people that our Scouts will encounter in the Working World are going to share this same strong, unconscious resistance to change. It doesn’t matter if the topic is a weather forecast or serious security violation; some people will automatically and doggedly resist every persuasion attempt directed at them.

True, such people are more likely to fight back when you attack what they perceive to be a core belief (politics, religion, sport). That’s universal. People fight like hell to protect their essential self-image. Guarding their ego, so to speak.

This is a problem when your entire professional function is to get people to change their minds. For such users, the only way to convince them to change their behaviour is to get them to willingly and deliberately lower their defences first so that they’re in a receptive state that allows them to consider new ideas.

This can be astonishingly difficult to pull off, since you’re effectively demanding that the receiver accept what seems – to them – to be a personal attack. You’re accusing them of being wrong! Not just mistaken about the percentage chance of rain after lunch, but wrong about their core identity and their place in the universe. That blurring of identity and idea makes every conversation a potential knife-fight. Every encounter can rapidly escalate, making the simplest of chats exhausting. You have to make your user(s) prepared to receive your message before you can start to deliver it. If you don’t, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Which brings us back to the high school biology class experience. 

The thing is, the art of effective communications requires a presenter to learn how to create a context where his or her listeners can and will understand the necessity to change, acknowledge that change might be required, and then make themselves vulnerable to embrace uncomfortable change. That’s a tall order.

We can sometimes demand it (speaking from authority, leveraging threats). We can sometimes entice it (offering bribes, appealing to desires). We can occasionally trigger it through misdirection (convince the listener it was their idea). Most of the time, we don’t have any of those options. We have to address the problem up front, then make the business case why this argument needs to be evaluated fairly and dispassionately, then steadily drive the core point home until it’s grudgingly accepted. It can take multiple attempts, and it’s rarely ever easy.

It’s also not always worth it. Looking back, I didn’t really need Daphne to change her opinion that military-themed adventure novels were garbage. I liked them, and I didn’t need her permission or approval to read them. She had zero need to read them (let alone to like them). My whole motivation for starting a discussion on trashy literature to help me to better understand here, and to help her see me in a more positive and relatable light. In a way, the initiative succeeded in one of my two objectives.


[1] Not her real name, obviously. I chose ‘Daphne’ after the naiad from Greek myth, because – like a pound-store Apollo knockoff – I’d been quite smitten with her for most of our school days. Unlike the Daphne of myth, though, this girl never seemed to notice.

[2] Cristobol was indisputably the smartest boy in the school, every straight girl’s ideal boyfriend on our campus, and one of my best mates. I trusted his judgment.

Title Allusions: Victor Milán (writing as Richard Austin), The Guardians #1 (1985 book)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featured

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.