The Inside View

10 tips to address 'Entrenched Thinking Disease'

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At my first book festival, earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to pitch my new book to the attendees. The doors opened at 10 a.m. and the very first person that came to my booth looked at me with an expression of bewilderment. She peered at my book cover. Her eyes rolled in disbelief.

In pure disdain, she uttered, "McDonald’s cannot be sustainable." Before I could respond, she marched away.

Virtually all my career, I have encountered this battle to deal with those who are deeply entrenched in their opinion. The company I worked at for 33 years was both beloved and bedeviled and gave me plenty of experience with close-mindedness.

How do you crack through those who are rigid in their views, both internally and externally? I believe this to be one of the hardest aspects for those leading corporate sustainability. I still have plenty of these baffling encounters, so I’ve been on a renewed mission to listen, research and learn practical ways to address what I call the disease of entrenched thinking.

1. Un-trench yourself first: We tend to think it’s awful to deal with entrenched thinking, but we may be guilty ourselves. I’m not saying that you give up your beliefs at all. I am suggesting you truly open your mind to listen to what others say, even though it will test your patience.

2. Evaluate your own confirmation bias: Research has shown that most of us read, listen to and watch what we already believe in. We bemoan those that watch or listen to biased media, but it’s likely we are doing the same.

3. Expand your sources: Do an inventory of where you get your information. If they are all alike, consider adding some sources that are different. Believe me, this challenges me. I can’t listen to some pundits for more than a minute. I am not recommending that you absorb garbage, just that you expose your mind to a full 360-degree range of opinions.

4. Become uncomfortable: You should feel uncomfortable because much of your absorbing doesn’t align with your beliefs. By poking around everywhere, you will better understand those that you want to persuade and will bulletproof your own point of view.

5. Employ more storytelling: "Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools to overcome entrenched, anti-story viewpoints," says Park Howell. I reached out to Howell because of his vast experience on this topic. His advice: "The only way you are going to overcome these polarized views is with the dynamism of a better story and the positive energy and force it creates."

6. Use ABT (And, But, Therefore): When I asked Howell to put storytelling into practice, he recommended ABT, which provides a narrative foundation of set-up, problem and resolution that our Homo sapiens brain loves.

To address the woman I met at my first book signing and her anti-story, Howell suggested that I could have said, "I appreciate your skepticism as many others share the same view. That’s why I shared the stories of the highs and lows of our sustainability journey, what we learned and where McDonald’s is headed. For example, did you know that McDonald’s partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace and Conservation International on reducing waste, preserving the Amazon and purchasing certified sustainable fish?"

I shared with Howell my recent experience with my tennis buddies, most of whom don’t believe in climate change. We’d go to coffee after tennis and gab. One of them looked directly at me, as if we were on "Meet the Press," and shared how he believed climate change is not real, using support from a recent Rush Limbaugh show.

I figured, "Here is my chance to try my hand at addressing ‘entrenched thinking.’" So I said, "There’s something real about climate change because of my experience working with food suppliers for McDonald’s who wrestled with lots of impact on their farms due to climate change."

Howell told me that I could do better. He said, "It all sounds like rhetoric until you take me to an exact instance through a story. I cannot argue with your experience — the aha moment — the time it opened your eyes."

So, a better response would be: "Let me tell you when I realized climate change is real. I was at our potato supplier in Boise, Idaho, and the farmers I spoke to couldn’t stop telling me how climate change was changing everything they were doing."

Howell said, "That’s where your credibility is at its strongest. They cannot argue with you in a true story, well told, that opened your eyes to something."

7. Appeal to their moral foundation, and know yours: In my research, several people pointed me toward the work of Jonathan Haidt and his five moral foundations. He has several TED Talks worth a listen, where he explains how we are wired differently, based on these five moral underpinnings: Care; Fairness; Loyalty; Authority; and Purity.

Haidt applied his psychology research to politics, but it applies to our sustainability work as well. We face so many stakeholders that come from a different moral viewpoint. Each believes they are good people trying to do the right thing.

Haidt says in his TED Talk:

The big difference between liberals and conservatives seems to be that conservatives score slightly higher on the in-group/loyalty foundation, and much higher on the authority/respect and purity/sanctity foundations.

This difference seems to explain many of the most contentious issues in the culture war. For example, liberals support legalizing gay marriage (to be fair and compassionate), whereas many conservatives are reluctant to change the nature of marriage and the family, basic building blocks of society. Conservatives are more likely to favor practices that increase order and respect (e.g., mandatory pledge of allegiance), whereas liberals often oppose these practices as being violent or coercive.

You can take the test of your moral foundation here. It took me 10 minutes to learn mine.

8. Step out: Haidt’s most challenging advice lies within this quote from Zen master Sēngcàn: "If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be 'for' or 'against.' The struggle between 'for' and 'against' is the mind's worst disease." 

Haidt says this that requires us in the sustainability profession to put some of our passion to the side:

A lot of the problems we have to solve are problems that require us to change other people. And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are — understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we're right — and then step out.

Step out of the moral Matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody thinks they're right, and even if you disagree with them, everybody has some reasons for what they're doing. 

Step out. And if you do that, that's the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition. 

9. Strive for inches: I looked for solutions in the new book "Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter" by Lee Hartley Carter. My favorite chapter was Chapter 4: "Hearing the Haters."

Carter states, "You have to be realistic about this when you take a close look at your detractors, because you’re entering controversial territory. Johan Jorgen Holst, who helped negotiate the Oslo Accords, said that the mistake most people make in negotiation is trying to get their audience from A to Z. ‘You are just trying to get them from A to B.’ So, it’s a game of inches."

Carter compared it to the evolution of gay marriage that started with small steps that eventually led to marriage equality.

10. Close the Empathy Gap: In "The Brain’s Empathy Gap," from The New York Times Magazine, Emile Bruneau explains, "When considering an enemy, the mind generates an ‘empathy gap.’ It mutes the empathy signal, and that muting prevents us from putting ourselves in the perceived enemy’s shoes." Carter states, "If we do not like the person we are going in to persuade, we are inclined to unconsciously suppress empathetic feelings toward that person. That means we must make a conscious effort to engage in empathy. It doesn’t come naturally."

The disease of entrenched thinking is spreading too much. We as sustainability professionals are not only at forefront of changing how society thinks about issues such as climate change, plastic/food waste and equality in the workplace, but we are the vortex of altering the nature of the dialogue as well.