What do you do when someone’s ignorance or denial of things they’d rather not believe hampers your efforts to reach consensus with them? In “Reality Lite,” Psychology Today, Nov.-Dec. 2011, Dr. Raj Raghunathan explains that an upbeat mood makes a person more open to hard facts.
In joint studies with Yaacov Trope, Raghunathan found that mood affected subjects’ answers to a question that assessed their preference between an unpleasant truth or a view through rose colored glasses, such as “If your partner were cheating on you, would you rather know, or remain blissfully ignorant?” A good mood increased a subject’s likelihood of choosing to know the truth.
I would add that, if someone wants to know the truth, (s)he is more likely to accept it. And in persuasive or consensus-seeking communications, we not only want the other person to hear the facts, but also to understand and accept them.
So what does this mean for us when we are engaged in a consensus-seeking interaction? Let’s say someone you know—a coworker, friend, relative, or member of your congregation, whom we’ll call “Jimmy”—broke his right leg. You’ve been helping out with transportation, driving him to work and Dr. appointments, doing his grocery shopping, etc.
Jimmy has other friends and relations who could pick up some of the load, but Jimmy repeatedly tells you that he’s just not comfortable asking them for help. Jimmy seems to think that, because you have flexible working hours, it’s easier for you to do it all.
This is having such a negative impact on your life that you can no longer keep it up. Even though your hours are flexible, you are not spending enough total time at the office, and your boss has noticed. Furthermore, by trying to catch up on your work at home in the evenings, you have neglected your exercise, and you aren’t getting enough sleep. This is beginning to affect your health.
You decide to give Jimmy three days to make other arrangements. But Jimmy is a master of denial and self-delusion. You’re concerned that he will not take your words seriously, and that after three days, he will phone saying he absolutely must get to the doctor and has no one else to drive him.
Based on Dr. Raghunathan’s article, I concluded that the common practice of waiting until someone is in a good mood to deliver bad news is scientifically sound. But you don’t have to wait for a man with a broken leg to get into a good mood. Raghunathan and Trope found that even transitory good moods open a person to unpleasant, but important, facts.
These researchers primed test subjects, asking some of them to write about an incident that made them happy, while others wrote about an event that made them sad. Both groups then read an article describing positive and negative aspects of caffeine. The researchers found that those who felt happy remembered more of the negative effects of caffeine, while those who felt unhappy focused almost exclusively on the positive effects.
So before giving Jimmy the bad news, you might share a laugh over some pleasant event from your joint past, tell him a joke, or pay him a compliment. You can mesh this practice with your other consensus-building skills.
- First, develop your best Walk-Away Alternative or Plan B, as described on pp. 199-210 of Bridges to Consensus. For example, you may decide that if, after three days, Jimmy still phones you for a ride or to pick up some groceries, you will tell him that you can’t do it.
- Now speak with Jimmy, beginning with a good-mood memory, joke or the like.
- Precede your three-day deadline with information about the interests behind it—the need for you to take care of your own job and health. See Bridges to Consensus, pp. 74-75
- Tie your interests in with Jimmy’s interests by pointing out that, if you get sick or lose your job, you’ll be no good to him or anyone else. There are several examples of this in the sample dialogues in Bridges to Consensus, e.g. Dialogue 2, p. 98 about half-way down the page.
- Pause (Bridges, pp. 136-140) and give Jimmy a chance to come to his own conclusion that he must look elsewhere for help.
- Whether or not Jimmy comes to that conclusion, give him a specific time frame—you will no longer be able to help after three more days—and suggest that he begin now to line up other sources of assistance.
- If Jimmy asks for help after three days, execute Plan B by refusing.
And even when you’re dealing with someone who is more reasonable than Jimmy, preceding your bad news with something upbeat can increase their level of understanding and acceptanc