Fact or Fiction? How to Communicate When We Hold Different Beliefs
In this episode, Seema Yasmin explains what to do when we disagree about our deepest-held beliefs.
Why does disagreement feel so personal? According to author, journalist, and physician Seema Yasmin, it’s because beliefs aren’t just about what we think, they’re about who we are.
“What [people] believe is entrenched in them, and it’s to do with their sense of belonging and their sense of identity,” says Yasmin. Whether we’re butting heads over something trivial like sports or something major like COVID-19 vaccines, Yasmin points out that the disagreement is just the surface — underneath are complex layers of geopolitics, history, language, dialect, culture, faith, family history, and power hierarchies.
So how do we show compassion to others, especially when we disagree with them? Yasmin and host Matt Abrahams explore strategies for more empathetic communication in this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart.
Matt Abrahams: Communication can be very challenging, especially when others don’t see the world the way we do. Today, we’ll discuss how to bridge that gap. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. I am very excited to talk today with Seema Yasmin, a collaborator and friend. Seema is the Director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Stanford Medical School. Seema is an Assistant Professor of Crisis Communication and Crisis Management at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. She is a doctor, and Emmy Award-winning journalist, and the author of five books, her latest of which is called What the Fact?
Welcome, Seema. Thanks for being here.
Seema Yasmin: Thank you for having me, Matt. It’s great to talk to you.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah, the last time we talked, I was actually being interviewed by you for some video that we were doing. So I’m glad that the tables are a bit turned.
Seema Yasmin: You get to enact your revenge.
Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] It was a pleasure.
Seema Yasmin: I’m ready for it.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, okay.
Seema Yasmin: Give me your worst.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, I’m going to give you my best. Let’s get started. As I’ve gotten to know you over all these years, one thing is very clear to me — you are a master communicator. You write. You teach. You coach. And you’ve even done a little bit of standup comedy. I’m curious if you have any overarching approach to your communication, any guiding principles you use?
Seema Yasmin: Empathy and respect for your audience.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, okay.
Seema Yasmin: I think especially because I am a doctor, and I am a scientist, and even my standup comedy material, before the pandemic was about my research on the spread of antivaccine sentiments. It’s so easy to make the antagonist in your story silly and absurd and dumb, for want of a better word. And I still see that happening in even serious settings in which doctors and scientists are talking about those people who won’t get vaccinated. So that specific, but just broadly in communication, simplifying something does not mean dumbing it down or talking down to people.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Seema Yasmin: And I’m sure I feel like that because I’ve been the person that people have talked down to about — or talked down to a lot. So knowing your audience, understanding what their expertise is, because they’re experts in things you’re not, and then connecting with your audience through empathy and compassion. That is at the heart of my communication strategies.
Matt Abrahams: I absolutely have seen that play out when I’ve seen you teach. You really are empathetic. Much of your work focuses on communication in healthcare or about healthcare topics. What lessons do you teach healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses, and can you relate those lessons to those of us outside of healthcare?
Seema Yasmin: I remind them — I would say I suggest, guide, and remind that you don’t know it all. And that might sound really simple, but it’s quite humbling and sometimes difficult for people to hear and that they will walk in to the room that I am in with their arms crossed —
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.
Seema Yasmin: — and sometimes will even say, “I just don’t think there’s anything else you can teach me about communication.” And they have decades on me sometimes, and they do know things that I don’t know. But they need a reminder that there’s no evidence on communications, or there are just some better strategies out there that they might use. So that’s one of the things I am reminding people of.
Matt Abrahams: We all suffer from that curse of knowledge, and it can be threatening to realize that we don’t know everything. Oftentimes, healthcare professionals are in a position to be encouraging attitude and behaviors in people who might not want to take them on. For example —
Seema Yasmin: No, that never happens to [us].
Matt Abrahams: No, no, I’m sure.
Seema Yasmin: Life isn’t easy [laughs].
Matt Abrahams: Yeah. I mean, eat less or eat differently, exercise more. Can you provide some insight into how we can motivate people to do things that they may not want to do or feel capable of doing?
Seema Yasmin: Yeah, behavior change is at the cornerstone of all of this. And I’ve literally just come off the phone with auntie who lives across an ocean who won’t get her flu shot —
Matt Abrahams: Oh.
Seema Yasmin: — because the COVID vaccine caused all these problems. And I’m like, “No it didn’t.” I’m like, “You really need your flu shot.” So to that point —
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Seema Yasmin: I’m going to have a different conversation with her than I am with my friend who’s got a DrPH from Harvard who also doesn’t want to get the flu shots. They have two very different reasonings. And what often happens in medicine and perhaps at large — and you might know more about that — is this idea that I have a message I want to get across. The message is going to help you. It will aim to convince you to get vaccinated, but it does none of the intelligence gathering or the listening at the beginning —
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.
Seema Yasmin: — that gone is the information you need to effectively communicate with a person, even just to understand ,why does my auntie really passionately not want the flu shot, and why does my friend over in Cambridge not want the flu shot. Completely different reasons and, therefore, I’m going to use quite different approaches.
Matt Abrahams: So what I’m hearing is a couple of things — you have to really think about what’s motivating the behavior or lack of the behavior and the attitudes that go with it, and then you have to craft messaging that different and specific. So there’s no peanut butter approach where you just spread the same message across and you really have to focus. That requires a lot of effort and time.
Seema Yasmin: Yes, it does. And it should, that this is not an easy fix. And in the context of coaching, I do work with physician leaders or clinicians at large. People will come in with that, “Tell me what I can do in the context of an eight-minute consult.” And I’m like, I get it because I’ve been there.
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.
Seema Yasmin: Twelve minutes is hard; eight minutes is horrible.
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.
Seema Yasmin: What can you do in that eight minutes to convince my auntie, for example, if you’re her GP to get the flu shot? Mm, probably not going to convince her to get the flu shot, but you might convince her to come in the next month for another blood sugar check. You might convince her that you’re actually a really openminded person who won’t berate her for her particular belief. And her experience — and many will tell you this — has been, “I’m not even going to share this information with you about my belief on the science, on the vaccine stuff because I just know you’re going to tell me I’m silly and I should just do a thing.”
So my advice often to people is it’s not going to be a one-and-done conversation. Realistically, what can you do in that first conversation, in that eight minutes and that eighty minutes, whatever you have, that can leave the door open for further communication?
Matt Abrahams: I hear two things there that are really important: One, it’s about the connection and the relationship that you build. And there’s an incremental approach that you have to think about over the long term, how can I move this person in that direction? I think we have become very transactional. We want it right now. And when it comes to attitudinal change and behavioral change, it might take time.
Seema Yasmin: Oh my gosh, especially when you remind yourself — and I go into the detail of this in What the Fact? — belief is not just about fact. This is why a conversation with my aunt, for example, with somebody about vaccines can get so heated. It’s not really about the vaccine. Our belief is so much to do with our belonging —
Matt Abrahams: Mm.
Seema Yasmin: — to a community. Our belief is so deeply intertwined with our identity. So when you’re saying to someone, “I disagree with you about your perspective on masks,” actually, there’s a whole set of clouds around them that are geopolitics, history, language, dialect, culture, faith, family history, hierarchies in their community. And yet we’re just talking about the vaccine, and we’re just talking about the 16 ingredients in the vial? I promise you, many times that is not going to work because you’re erasing all the rest of that person. You’re neglecting the fact that what they believe is entrenched in them, and it’s to do with their sense of belonging and their sense of identity.
A lot of that doesn’t make sense when you think about it from an intellectualist point of view, but it makes complete sense when you think about it from an interactionist point of view. And you talk to the evolutionary biologists who remind us, hey, you’re alive today because your ancestors a long time ago were able to survive predatory species by banding together, that belonging really occurred because of shared beliefs. It was wrapped up in our survival.
Matt Abrahams: You are reminding us of something that has been mentioned a few times on this podcast about we have to understand the entirety of the situation that the person is in that we’re communicating with, not just the specific issue. And you also highlight the notion between understanding and agreeing. I can understand your perspective, but I don’t necessarily have to agree with your perspective. And when we come from that position, I think it opens up collaboration and dialogue that often gets shut off.
Seema Yasmin: And that has everything to do with compassion and empathy.
Matt Abrahams: So let’s get to What the Fact? When it comes to fake news and extreme ideas and positions, do you have any advice on how we can effectively debunk those lies or distorted truths that others in our lives hold to be true? What can we do to help reduce the difference between us and them?
Seema Yasmin: There’s a lot of research on this, and it’s fascinating. And I’m sure you’ve heard or already spoken about the illusion of explanatory depth. But let me share that as one —
Matt Abrahams: Please.
Seema Yasmin: — great strategy because I love this story. It’s the idea that often the people who hold the strongest views, that are the most passionate about something, when asked, “Well, how do tax policies to cut carbon emissions really work?” might be the same folks who are like, “Um, uh, I — mm, uh, oh, I don’t know.” And I don’t say this, again, because compassion and empathy — hello. I’m not saying it to shame anyone because shame actually not a helpful motivator. But if you can do that kind of probing gently, compassionately, guiding somebody to a place of, “Oh, crap, I don’t actually understand how this works” can be really helpful from dislodging them from their polarized corner.
And the example I use when I do keynotes or I do coaching is — I think it was Yale students were asked, “How does a flush toilet work? Do you know how it works?” And everyone’s like, “Well, yeah, we use it like three times a day. I know how it works.” Okay, “Well, can you explain how the system and the ball and the —,” and people are like, “Um, yeah, no.” Many of us use things daily — the Internet, flush toilets — very basic, very modern. We don’t fully know how they work.
And so this brings me to a second point: One, understanding the illusion of explanatory depth, the fact that, hey, we hold really strong beliefs on things we actually don’t know much about. But it also brings me to that point of you don’t have to understand how everything works in order to have some sense of knowledge about, “Well, I know flush toilets work, man. Like I use them; it’s fine. I don’t need to know everything. I know there are people on the planet who are experts in systems and the mechanics of the flush toilet.” Because of the Internet perhaps, and because of like the way we share knowledge, I don’t always know where my understanding ends and theirs begins.
That’s okay, but let’s be much more aware of that. And again, it brings me back to that interactionist point of view, which is related to compassion and empathy because it reminds us that there is collective knowledge and collective belief that guides us to sometimes thinking we know it all.
Matt Abrahams: I’m smiling because, before we talked, I said we’d better make sure use clean language. And it turns out you ended up being a potty mouth, but in a very different way —
Seema Yasmin: Very different way.
Matt Abrahams: — very different way. This idea of gradually or incrementally helping people see that they might not be experts, I can understand how that can really help open people up. I can only imagine that you have to be very careful —
Seema Yasmin: Yeah.
Matt Abrahams: — in that journey —
Seema Yasmin: Yeah.
Matt Abrahams: — because if you come on too strong too fast, it can be really challenging.
Seema Yasmin: And one way of doing that is perhaps sharing your lack of understanding and actually asking them in a genuinely curious way, like, “Do you think between the two of us we could actually figure out how a flush toilet works?”
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Seema Yasmin: Or even how tax policies to cut carbon emissions, like if you were designing it, how would you do it? Like how do they do it now?” It’s okay to not know. I think it comes back to that humility, too. But it brings me to another point that I make in What the Fact? Your beliefs about things do not have to be binary, black and white, an on-off switch, right?
Matt Abrahams: Yeah.
Seema Yasmin: That’s actually oftentimes a pretty dangerous place to be because then you are in that polarized corner that no one can dislodge you from. If instead you say to yourself, “I’m going to assign levels of credence to beliefs about things,” then when someone gently, compassionately, kindly guides you to, “Do you know how that side of policy works, because I don’t, right?” then you might say, “Oh, crap, yeah, no, I don’t either.” I’m going to bring that belief that I really love those tax policies or really hate them, I’m going to bring it down a couple of notches. And what that does is it allows you to then take in and absorb new evidence, which you can then assess, discuss, or decide, and then you can reassess, and you can change your level of credence about that belief.
So it’s actually something that’s that idea, that strategy is something that’s known to be cognitively building resilience, mental resilience to polarization, mental resilience to staunchly believing something and not being open to pushback.
Matt Abrahams: I find that idea of resilience fascinating and one that we should all think about how that knowledge can help us when we are in the position of trying to convince somebody of something, but also just for ourselves — where are we? And I really resonated with that notion that our attitudes are not necessarily binary. They’re on a continuum. And I fear that when somebody comes on strong, opposed to one of your beliefs or attitudes, that you retreat to a more extreme point of view than you might actually have because we’re being challenged. So reminding ourselves that there’s a gradation of our attitudes and beliefs and reminding ourselves that if we come on too strong, we can push people further away.
Seema Yasmin: Because it feels like an attack against who you are, not just your belief for or against vaccines or for or against a particular Presidential candidate. So we have to remember that that’s why that’s happening.
Matt Abrahams: Yes. Yeah, and again, it’s a threat to who we see ourselves as and our belonging to the culture and the environment that we live in. So let me ask you this: Is it possible to BS-proof our brains? In other words, what critical thinking skills do we need to develop to avoid being victimized by fake news and inappropriate information?
Seema Yasmin: It is possible. This book is very solutions oriented, and it has a whole chapter about what you’re asking me about. One of those things, of course, is what we’ve just discussed, this idea that don’t have black-and-white, binary ideas about belief. Instead of this on-off switch, have this dimmer switch, right?
Matt Abrahams: Mm, I like the visual image, yeah.
Seema Yasmin: That builds cognitive resilience, too. But inoculation theory —
Matt Abrahams: Yeah.
Seema Yasmin: — is fascinating to me because it’s this idea that came about in social psychology in the 1960s. It’s not new. And it came about from a Harvard social psychologist called William McGuire. So what Bill did is he used a medical idea, and he thought, “Hold on, if I can protect you from getting very sick with flu by exposing you to a small amount or weakened version of flu, why can’t I do the same with propaganda? Why can’t I do the same with the disinformation?” And so he tested this hypothesis. He exposed people to a weakened version of a lie, and it did in fact work. You give someone a heads-up in the first place — “Hey, do you know what? We’re developing a vaccine at warp speed. There’s every chance that we might get a vaccine for this new infection more quickly than we’ve ever made a vaccine.”
I already know if that happens, someone’s going to say to you, it happened too quickly to be safe. Someone else is going to say it makes you magnetic. Someone else is going to say there’s a microchip in it and Bill Gates is trying to track us all, et cetera, et cetera. What that does when I tell you that, it gives you this mental heads-up, an alarm bell, like oh, crap, someone’s going to be targeting me with these lies? Then what I do is I say to you, “Here’s why that’s not true.” Like a vaccine can’t make you magnetic because —. Bill Gates is not putting microchips in them because —. And yeah, it’s being made really quickly, but here’s why it’s still safe. Look at what they’re doing.
That in the person who is exposed to it develops mental counterarguments, where they build what we’re calling these mental antibodies, like the same that you have in your immune system. But this is kind of around your brain.
Matt Abrahams: I think inoculation theory is fascinating and have studied it and read up on it. And I think it’s highly ironic that we’re using inoculation theory to talk about inoculations.
Seema Yasmin: [Laughs]
Matt Abrahams: Just putting those two together, it was brilliant. The idea of pre-exposing people before they actually get it and preparing them for how to respond is very, very powerful. Well, Seema, before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me. Are you up for that?
Seema Yasmin: Yes!
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Question number one: If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would that be?
Seema Yasmin: Know your audience.
Matt Abrahams: Ah.
Seema Yasmin: It’s three words but, honestly, I just see that not done, and that one-size-fits-all message lobbed to everyone. Every audience is not the same! Please adjust your messaging [laughs].
Matt Abrahams: Very consistent. You’ve been talking about empathy, and the need to really reflect and knowing your audience is absolutely critical. I’m going to be really curious to hear your answer for this, given that I know you well. I’m curious whom you’re going to pick, but who’s a communicator that you admire and why?
Seema Yasmin: I want to say my mother.
Matt Abrahams: That’s fine. Tell me more about why.
Seema Yasmin: My mother, Yasmin [Halima], is expert at knowing her audience —
Matt Abrahams: Mm.
Seema Yasmin: — and slipping into, you know, [code] switching and doing her research beforehand and understanding power hierarchies, whether they’re in a 10,000-person nonprofit or in my family, which is perhaps more complicated than a 10,000-person nonprofit, believe it or not.
Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]
Seema Yasmin: And I just see her work wonders against people who might be very entrenched in their beliefs.
Matt Abrahams: Sure. So the Apple has not fallen far from the tree.
Seema Yasmin: I don’t know if I’m as good as my mother.
Matt Abrahams: You are an expert communicator. And it’s not —
Seema Yasmin: Can’t cook as well as her. I don’t know if I can communicate as well as her.
Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]
Seema Yasmin: But that’s a good role model.
Matt Abrahams: Well, we should all have role models, and it’s nice that you have one in your family. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Seema Yasmin: You already know.
Matt Abrahams: Well, I know at least one or two of them. Give me all three.
Seema Yasmin: The listeners right now could probably just guess, “She’s going to say compassion.”
Matt Abrahams: Yeah.
Seema Yasmin: I am. “She’s going to say empathy.” Yes, I am. And the third one for successful communication, honesty and fun.
Matt Abrahams: Oh [laughs]. So you’ve hyphenated it to [sweeten] it.
Seema Yasmin: [Laughs] Yeah.
Matt Abrahams: So I can completely see how candor and honesty is very important. Talk to me about fun, because a lot of the topics you write about and you talk about, they’re not really fun.
Seema Yasmin: Yes, they are!
Matt Abrahams: In some cases, they’re life and death. No, some of them aren’t.
Seema Yasmin: Yeah, that’s true.
Matt Abrahams: So how do you keep your positive perspective when you’re dealing with some of these really challenging issues?
Seema Yasmin: I’ve taken up trampolining and gymnastics.
Matt Abrahams: Really!
Seema Yasmin: And my instructor is like — he’s in Cirque de Soleil and he’s amazing. And one of the things I say to him before a class is like, “Let’s do upside down stuff because I need to look at the world differently.” And honestly, there are just days when I’m like I just need to see everything upside down. I need a different perspective.
Matt Abrahams: I love that you shake things up. You always have. And your energy and enthusiasm are fantastic. And thank you. We have all learned so much from you. We’ve gained insight into techniques that have been around some for a long time and some that are newer that can help us be not only better communicators but better critical thinkers. And I appreciate that. And in conclusion, I would just say best of work with your new book, What the Fact?
Seema Yasmin: Thank you. Talking to you is like a master class in like you could check the boxes of all the excellent tips and strategies that you use that we teach people to use in effective communication. So it’s great talking with you. Thank you so much for having me.
Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you. And flattery will get you everywhere.
Seema Yasmin: Yay.
Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Riley, and me, Matt Abrahams. For more information and episodes, visit GSB.Stanford.edu. Or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @StanfordGSB.
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