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Engaging with the un-engageable

It’s a situation we all know well. The people who need to hear the message are often the ones unlikely to be open to receiving the message. Parents who have a poor or unhealthy diet are unlikely to listen to a nutritionist or come along to a healthy eating workshop. Kids who live a largely sedentary life are unlikely to get involved in sport on the weekends. Teachers who are overly strict and controlling of their classroom are unlikely to attend or engage with a workshop on working with chaos and creativity in the classroom.

Usually, people are more enthusiastic about engaging and discussing topics and issues that they already have a level of competence in. We all like to confirm our beliefs, and dislike being judged for our behaviours or beliefs. The obvious downside is that these conversations tend to become an echo chamber for the believers, enthusiastically reflecting each other’s ideas and experiences back to one another and making you feel like you’re having more impact than you really are. No one is immune to this social effect – we are drawn to conversations and people who justify and strengthen our current beliefs and actions. Birds of a feather Facebook together.

This is something we psychologists have been very conscious of when talking about mental health and wellbeing. There is an obvious need in the community, but the people who need it most don’t want to feel weak or broken, or be judged by self-righteous campaigners or social do-gooders. And fair enough, there are a lot of unqualified and contrary people creating unhelpful noise in this space at the moment.

People avoid seeking help or development opportunities in order to keep their ego and social standing intact, and therefore suffer in silence preferring distance, poorer life quality, and strained relationships over embarking on the painful process of self-change. We can all fall into this trap. We have a strong reflex that says only the strong will survive, so doing something that may indicate we’re a weak member of the pack triggers our fear-based survival instinct. It makes no rational sense, but it’s not the rational part of our brain that is making decisions here.

It usually takes a dramatic or calamitous event that socially exposes us that gives us permission to ask for help. When we are exposed, our ego admits defeat and we start searching for the shortest path to rebuilding ourselves in the eyes of others. In psychology, we call this the presentation-reality gap. The bigger the distance between our ‘real’ selves and the one we present to the world, the more unlikely it is that we are open to an honest conversation that could shatter the image of our ‘presentational’ self. Even though others can see through it, we’re not open to anything until the facade we are working hard to maintain fractures, at which point it can be too late. Something that could have been corrected simply, is now a major trauma that significantly impacts our lives and the lives of those we love. We see this all the time, and it’s particularly heartbreaking when kids are involved.

So, whether it be healthy eating, mental health, or some other topic that needs to be highlighted, how do you overcome these psychological barriers? How do you engage with those most in need but most resistant to the message?

I would like to say there is a simple way to engage with everyone all the time, but this just isn’t reality. If someone is committed to being closed to the message there is very little that can be done apart from patiently waiting until the façade shatters, then being there to speak into their lives at that moment. However, it is also not a lost cause.

We can do a lot to improve our chances of cutting through, particularly with those who are on the fence, or whose behaviour is more a result of inattention or ignorance rather than ego or core beliefs. In these cases, there is a lot we can do to reduce the reactivity, defensiveness, and dismissiveness and increase receptivity. In particular, there is one simple strategy that is particularly effective in hacking through the brain’s natural defence system to increase influence. It is the art and practice of cognitive empathy.

What is cognitive empathy and how does it work?

Ever wonder why walking into a room full of strangers is so uncomfortable? Or why sitting at another family’s table for Christmas lunch is so awkward? Or why you know instantly to run away if you accidentally walk into a meeting room in which you’re not supposed to be?

It turns out these reactions are related to the fact that we are herd animals, with a herd instinct, that needs to know how we socially ‘fit’ into the tribe at any given moment. Not knowing how we relate, how or why we are relevant to the group, and what role we should be playing is extremely unnerving.

Similarly, if we are part of a group and feel like our role in that group is under threat, then we also react negatively. So, if talking about mental health is seen as threatening to someone’s role or social standing within their family or social tribe, then you are unlikely to get engagement.

The need to belong and be accepted as part of the group is one of the brain’s most basic and fundamental needs. Interestingly, psychological scientists have shown that the brain lights up similarly in reaction to being ostracised from a group as it does in reaction to a physical injury. If you want to learn more about this fascinating research, search for Cyberball: A program for use in research on interpersonal ostracism and acceptance (Williams & Jarvis, 2006). The important thing here, however, is that our brains perceive belonging to the group as essential for survival.

Therefore, the first step in effectively engaging with someone around a potentially contentious topic is to make sure you are seen as part of their tribe. Someone who is on their side, partnering with them to solve a problem, not standing at a distance or as part of another group of outsiders judging or criticising them. The best way to do this is through cognitive empathy.

Cognitive empathy is different from emotional empathy because it postulates that you don’t need to feel what someone else is feeling in order to make the other person accept that you understand their perspective. I argue that it is impossible to know what someone else is actually feeling, you can only guesstimate based on what you might feel like in their situation. Constantly dipping into your own emotions in order to connect with someone is exhausting, and most times inaccurate. Cognitive empathy is much less exhausting, and much more effective. This is because you can be much more objective about the perspective you decide to take, and can quickly shift your hypothesis if you discover your initial assumptions about the reasons for resistance may have been incorrect.

To use cognitive empathy, you need to understand which ‘bucket’ of emotion their feelings are coming from, and some language that is intuitively linked to that emotion. Using an emotion wheel like the one pictured below that is used by the Switch4Schools platform is particularly helpful in this regard.

The emotion wheel used in the Switch4Schools program that articulates families of emotions, and language indicating arousal level within each emotion level.

The Switch4Schools emotion wheel is a map of human emotion, and is perfect for working out what language to use to build an empathic connection. This just takes two steps. First, work out what category of emotion is being felt, and then use low arousal language in that category directed at the thing that is causing the emotional reaction.

For instance, you might know that talking about mental health might be scary for someone. That’s step one – the underlying bucket of emotion sits in the ‘scared’ category. Step two, you need to use low arousal words in that bucket (hesitant or nervous) to explain that you are also scared of what they are scared of. So, if you think they are terrified of looking weak, then you might say, “I get nervous (a low arousal word in the scared bucket) about being made to appear inadequate when discussing mental health issues. It’s because of this that we have… (etc.).” Their reactive brain will feel good that their fear has been heard and they will assume that you’re now on their side. Their brain assumes that you are scared of what they’re scared of, so they’ll be more likely to trust you and be open to your influence. You’re on their side.

If, however, you think the underlying emotion is anxiety relating to a well-known story of someone who was humiliated when speaking about their own struggles, then you might say, “When the idea of talking publicly about mental health was raised, I was concerned that the environment wasn’t safe enough for people to be able to share openly and honestly. I have addressed this by… (etc.).”

In both instances, you have used inclusive language, and used a low arousal word within the same family of emotions experienced by the receiver in order to say, “I hear you, I feel you, I respect you, we’re in this together.” Whether you feel exactly the same is somewhat irrelevant – the listener knows you’re on their side and are beside them looking at the problem together. You have connected with them at an emotional level without it costing you any emotional energy in the process. You have connected and settled their emotional state cognitively, using cognitive empathy.

Using cognitive empathy won’t cut through to everyone, but not using it ensures you won’t get through to anyone who isn’t already on the bus. Emotions and language are two of the most powerful psychological levers we have, and learning how best to use them can only lead to a bigger impact.


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