Personal Growth

How to Communicate with a Reality Denier

We're guessing you've encountered a person in your life who denies facts that should be undeniable. Whether they think the moon landing was faked, believe the Earth is flat, or are convinced that people actually like fruitcake, it can be hard to get them to come to terms with reality. But it is possible. Try these techniques to effectively communicate with a reality denier.

Get the Fact Outta Here

Here's the thing: if somebody's beliefs aren't based on facts, then more facts won't persuade them. That's especially true if they have to actively ignore facts to hold those beliefs. You can't exactly start quoting Eratosthenes to somebody who thinks the Earth is flat. So what are you supposed to do? Basically, you've got to speak to them at their level, bearing in mind that their level doesn't include facts.

Writing for Relatively Interesting, behavioral scientist Gleb Tsipursky laid out a four-prong strategy for approaching these kinds of beliefs (and don't kid yourself, even if you're the most logical person on the planet, you probably have a few beliefs that aren't based in reality). The first part of the plan we've already covered: don't start with facts. They've probably heard them all before, anyway, and it's important to realize that facts aren't why they think what they think. Besides, confirmation bias will keep them from paying attention to any facts that go against what they've already decided.

Next, try to mirror their emotions and values. This is where you'll find the real reasons for their beliefs, and it's important to understand exactly where they're coming from. Try to grasp what emotional blocks are preventing them from seeing the world clearly.

The next part might be the hardest: build trust with empathy. It can be hard to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who denies an obvious fact, but you can probably empathize with their goals and concerns. Try communicating that common ground.

Finally, once you've convinced them that you're on the same side, try gently leading them away from false beliefs. Address their emotional blocks, start introducing fact-based arguments, and most importantly, don't be condescending. It might also help to give examples of people they respect changing their minds or realizing that they were wrong.

Reality Denial in the Real World

When it comes to things like the shape of the Earth, talking to somebody in denial of reality can be frustrating, but ultimately harmless. Other times, it has a real impact on the world. One study from 2005 found that 23 percent of fired CEOs were given the boot because they were in denial, and another from 2009 suggested that false beliefs at the top tend to echo throughout the entire structure of a company. That's not even counting the many denialist claims made by politicians. So the next time you encounter somebody who swears by a belief that is patently false, it's worth it to take the time to see where they're coming from — and gently lead them back from their fantasy world.

The Best Way to Convince Someone They're Wrong

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Written by Reuben Westmaas January 26, 2018

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