Gagen MacDonald has supported research commissioned by the Institute for Public Relations to investigate how PR and corporate communications executives can apply the findings of neuroscience to their work. By understanding key ideas in neuroscience, cognitive behavior and psychology, we can become better storytellers and therefore foster engagement, align culture and drive behavior change. This post is one in an occasional series exploring that research. Learn more at our upcoming Storytelling for Business Seminar with the Conference Board.
Why do we resist communications aimed at changing our behaviors? Simple: because change is difficult. It yanks us out of our comfort zones and demands effort – certainly more than coasting along.
Change is also scary. Even the prospect of eliminating a problem or threat doesn’t lessen the fear of what else change might bring. Behavioral economists describe this as “loss aversion”: we register the pain of losses more acutely than the pleasure of gains.
We also resist communications that ask us to change because of an underlying power dynamic: nobody likes to be forced.
But great storytelling is transformative. An absorbing, well-crafted story can change us imperceptibly. It loosens our grip on objections and alters our worldview in a way that feels like adventure. We actually want stories that motivate us to grow.
How can corporate communications address the most commons ways people resist their messages? In this two-part blog series, we’ll share research completed by Dr. Terry Flynn for the Institute for Public Relations in behavior communications - an emerging field based in neuroscience - to help you recognize the 6 most common resistance types. We’ll also explore narrative elements psychologists have found loosen our grip on those resistances, leaving listeners more open to change.
This resistance happens early in the communications process. As soon as you realize someone is angling to change your behavior, your guard goes up. You start manufacturing reasons why that message has to be wrong. Psychologists call it “counterarguing,” but we refer to this concept as “back-talk”.
Audiences will engage in counterarguing for many reasons. If the change required is unpleasant, if the consequences of not changing are negative, if trust between speaker and audience is already low, if the speaker omits an important point early in the communication – all of these factors can encourage back-talk.
Two narrative elements can reduce listener back-talk. Storytellers should aim to give listeners a feeling of “transportation” – of being fully absorbed in narrative. The more thoroughly audiences leave behind their actual world and engage in a narrative, the more their cognitive processes are engaged in the message – and the less mental energy they’ll devote to making counterarguments.
“Identification” is another effective narrative element that can get listeners on board. When listeners can easily identify with the characters in a story – their values, dilemmas, perspectives and experiences – studies show they’re less likely to resist the story’s message.
- Tuning out.
Cognitive behaviorists call this resistance “selective avoidance”, but we prefer “tuning out.” Any parent of a teenager knows what communication factors trigger tune-out: a boring, complex or unpleasant message; a speaker perceived as out-of-touch; more exciting alternatives competing for one’s attention.
How to counter tune-out? Think about “familiarity,” or the mental framework listeners bring to a story. The more easily a story slots into a pre-existing framework, the more readily the message is received. For instance, students often grasp mathematical concepts more intuitively if problems are translated into dollars and cents. In our own work, we’ve helped a global pharmaceutical company fight tune-out of field sales communications that were often redundant and overwhelming. By helping them deliver exactly the right message using the right channel at the right moment, we helped “calm the overwhelm” and earned the audience’s attention.
“Cultural embeddedness” also matters. As our post The Messenger is the Message outlines, cultural embeddedness starts with choosing the right speaker to deliver the message in terms that feel natural to the listener.
Stay tuned for our next post, in which we’ll address 4 more resistance types and the narrative strategies that can persuade listeners to let go of their objections.