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With the Indigenous Voice to parliament referendum now just days away, millions of Australians are still unsure of how they plan to vote on October 14. A myriad of reasons has been given from both sides of the debate as to why you should vote Yes or No.
But no amount of impassioned speeches by politicians, rallies or advertisements are likely to truly shift the needle one way or the other on a person’s vote before Saturday. And that’s because many undecided voters have tuned out from the “official” platforms.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is still positive about the Voice referendum.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
The only people who really have the ear of undecided voters are friends, family and colleagues. In this age of mass cynicism and social media schisms, it’s real-world relationships that still matter and have the ability to cut through.
But how can you have a conversation about this topic without ending a friendship or getting uninvited from the family Christmas? The key is to leverage the power of relationships and dive into conversations, especially with the 13 per cent of Australians who say they are still undecided. That’s your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, or if you’re in that group yourself, your friends, neighbours and siblings.
If this prospect fills you with dread, that’s understandable. These discussions often increase animosity and polarisation. But getting them right can be transformational. So if you’re feeling brave enough to strike up a conversation, here’s how to do it constructively.
Firstly, show respect. It’s all too easy (and sometimes encouraged) to believe that those who disagree with us are either stupid or malicious. Signalling disrespect is a surefire way to kill any possibility of persuasion. Even the faintest whiff of disrespect triggers defensiveness, and when that happens, constructive conversation is over.
One way to show respect is to listen – and I mean really listen. Often, people become belligerent when they don’t feel heard. That means two of the biggest tools in your arsenal are your ears. Just listening carefully, asking a few questions and repeating back a summary of what they’ve said can be transformative. It makes them feel heard, and it gives you a chance to understand where they’re coming from, even if you don’t agree with it.
It’s also really important to listen before you share your views. When we hear someone say something we don’t agree with, our natural tendency is to immediately tell them we disagree. But doing this sets you at loggerheads from the outset. Instead, hold back, hear them out and show that you’re interested in getting to the bottom of the matter. That way it’s not a tug of war.
Research shows that personal conversations are more effective than mass marketing or rallies. Credit: Chris Hopkins
When listening to their reasoning, you may find that some of it will be authentic and some will likely be post-hoc rationalisations of deeper unstated motivations. You can spot a post-hoc rationalisation because even when you show that it’s false, it doesn’t change their mind. That means it was never the real motivation for their beliefs, just a distraction.
The trick is not to challenge or fact-check post-hoc rationalisations head-on, but to change the way they perceive the issue in the first place. Once you’ve generated enough goodwill, offer an alternative perspective on the issue. You don’t need to encourage, let alone demand, they adopt your perspective, just offer it as your reason for voting the way you intend to.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve done just about all anyone can do in a single conversation. Thank them and move on to something else. Let them mull over your perspective, and perhaps in the next conversation you might be able to go deeper. Minds rarely change in a single sitting.
Of course, there will be times when the conversation goes off the rails. Maybe your discipline cracks and you scoff at one of their remarks. Perhaps they refuse to engage in good faith. Maybe they just want to troll you to get a reaction. If any of these things happen, change the topic to focus instead on reinforcing the relationship based on other shared values – family, sport, food, whatever it is that brings you together. Perhaps in the next conversation they won’t feel the need to get defensive, or offensive.
Good conversations, particularly persuasive ones, take work. But if even a few unsure voters are swayed, it could shift the tide. And given the Voice is about being heard, it’s rather fitting each of our voices could help make the difference.
Dr Tim Dean is a senior philosopher at The Ethics Centre in Sydney, an independent not-for-profit organisation.
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