Three Words that can Change the World

Posted: Tuesday, October 8th 2013 at 6:49 AM

– Craig Van Slyke, Dean
The W. A. Franke College of Business. Northern Arizona University

Three words that can change the world … what words come to mind? I’ll bet they’re not the three I’m thinking about. (Show of hands, how many of thought “I love you?”) There are three words that can change your world at work, with your friends, your enemies, your boss, your followers and your loved ones. What are these three magical words? Help me understand.

Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a lot more rancor and mistrust in the world. Not too long ago we suffered through a Presidential campaign season. Much of the so-called discourse seemed to be what my wife, Tracy, called the “you’re evil,” “you’re eviler” method of debate. Tracy got so tired of it she quit listening to NPR. I got so tired of it I went on a Facebook rant about the rancorous postings among friends. Who has ever changed their mind about an issue because someone called them an idiot or evil? My guess is a big fat nobody.

Once in a meeting, a gentleman went into a rant about another meeting he attended. He was a strong advocate for a certain position, which was contrary to the opinion of most attendees. He said, “I was the only thinking person there. They were all idiots!” Really. He actually said everyone else was an idiot. Not surprisingly, he changed no minds that night. If he asked, “Help me understand why you believe this,” a true, useful dialogue might result. He might uncover misinformation or misunderstandings that he could clear up. He might actually learn something. In short, he would at least have a chance of changing some minds. Although I wasn’t there, it’s not hard to picture how people reacted. If you tell me I’m wrong, my defenses start to go up. If you tell me I’m wrong because I’m stupid or evil, the walls go way up and I dig in, holding onto my position like a hungry dog to a bone.

Frankly, I used to be the same way. Anyone who disagreed with me was flat wrong and I wasn’t afraid to say so. As I matured, I realized how ineffective my approach was. Gradually, I switched to trying to understand WHY the other person disagreed with me. The “help me understand” approach is much more effective.

All of us are products of a unique mix of genes and experiences. The next time you have a disagreement, realize that if you had exactly the same background as the other person, you probably would hold the same opinions. So, if you want to change minds, seek first to understand why people hold a particular opinion. It’s really the only chance you have at bringing them over to your way of thinking. (There’s always the possibility that you’re wrong, in which case your understanding of their position leads you to a more sound opinion.)

This works for leaders. “Help me understand why you think this is a bad idea” lets you effectively persuade your followers. This works for teachers. “Help me understand why you aren’t doing well in this class” lets you better reach students. This works at home. “Help me understand why you seem tired” lets you know when and how to pitch in. This works for followers. “Help me understand why this is important for the organization” lets you understand how your efforts contribute. Remember people hold their opinions for a reason. Changing minds requires understanding those reasons. Say these words, “Help me understand why you believe that way” – you’ll be happy with the results.

Call me an optimist (which is OK, because I am), but I really believe that if more people took the “help me understand” approach, the world would be a better place. That’s what I believe, and I’d be happy to understand why.

The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 2,700 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see:

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