How to help a friend or family member out of their extreme belief

Thanksgiving, as well as Christmas as well as Easter, has always been a time for families to come together. Unfortunately, many families have experienced polarization or division regarding topics like politics, religion, and Covid.

According to a 2020 Brown University study, political polarization among Americans has grown rapidly in the last 40 years. Americans’ feelings toward members of the other political party have worsened over time faster than those of residents of European and other prominent democracies.

This is something all of us instinctively know. Most of us have had a relationship with a friend or family member that has become fractured because of these divides.

But our political disagreements feel less familiar. The emergence of truly unhinged conspiracy theories causes us to lose our cool. We think to ourselves: “How can they honestly believe this!?”

There’s an approach that can repair relationships and even lead to our loved one reforming their unfounded beliefs. Below, I will detail this process. 

Things to Do BEFORE Your Conversations

  1. Start with YOU. Do your homework. Before you interact with your family member or friend, it’s vital that you do some pre-preparation to understand how this extreme belief developed. First things first, research cults and mind control. I recommend reading my books in this order: Combating Cult Mind Control, Freedom of Mind, and The Cult of Trump. If you don’t have time to do this before the holidays, my website is filled with useful and important (free) information.
  2. Realize that helping a person will be a process requiring patience, effort, flexibility, and love. Arguing or “debating” doesn’t work. The conventional methods of persuasion you may employ in other parts of your life won’t work here! Criticizing the leader, doctrine or policy makes the person feel persecuted. Assisting people to reevaluate requires a different communication toolkit.
  3. If possible, try to understand their value system and motivations. If they have a Facebook profile and post about politics, take a look at what they post. What are their primary sources of information? That will guide you to the person’s beliefs. Where did they get hooked?  What are their values? Are they concerned with “safety,” “tradition,” “fiscal responsibility?” Though you likely will disagree with them, try to get “inside” why they believe the things that they believe.
  4. Build rapport and trust. For you to be effective, the person you wish to assist must trust you. To do this, rapport is vital. If your relationship is fractured, before attempting to employ any of my suggested methods for a Strategic Interactive Approach, work to rebuild your relationship. If you were the one to break contact, apologize. Reach out and be warm. Focus on common values and areas you both enjoy (children, pets, music, dancing, fishing, sports). Agree to both avoid controversial topics. Just try to connect with the other person and have positive warm interactions. If you do nothing but build rapport this holiday, it will be a huge step to assist your loved one to start reevaluating.

Things to Do DURING Your Conversations

  1. Pretend you are an impartial therapist. Good therapists listen and don’t react when their client says something outrageous yet they are able to still push and ask thought-provoking questions. Step into this role! This is the mindset you want to embody. 
  2. Adopt a general tone of curiosity and interest in their positions. Set a frame of curiosity and fun in communicating and understanding their viewpoints. Communicate to the person in question that you have no intention to debate. You just want to “interview” and understand how they tick. Make this fun. Act like an inquisitive (impartial!) investigative reporter who only wants to understand how someone thinks.
  3. Keep conversations positive, productive, and civil. Never get angry. Stay resourceful. It is better to end the interaction than to get upset and say something counter-productive.
  4. Try to connect them with their authentic identity. Remind them of the good times you had together before their extreme beliefs. Try to take them back in time (through telling old stories, etc.) to the person they were before these new extreme beliefs.
  5. Ask thought-provoking questions while being warm and curious. Be prepared to listen deeply. You will know if you have listened well if you can repeat back to them what they said.  Be humble and open to hearing what they say. 
  6. Share feelings and perceptions, not judgments. Use “I feel” statements. Don’t claim to be “right.” Stick to what your perception is when reflecting back to them.
  7. Make your goal understanding, not “winning.”  Conversations should never be competitive or about scoring “points.”
  8. Don’t “tell” them anything. The best way to persuade someone is to help them to persuade themselves. Help them make discoveries on their own.  If for example the person hates Hilary Clinton but loves Donald Trump, ask them why? If they say they don’t like her because of “corruption,” have them define corruption and help them to discover (on their own) that by their very own definitions, Donald Trump violates some of their own rules/values.
  9. Understand their value system and make gentle suggestions if you notice inconsistencies. Kindness doesn’t mean you can’t push or ask questions or point out inconsistencies in their positions.  Just be sure to do so in a way that doesn’t cause them to completely tune you out!  We want to get inside the bubble.  🙂 
  10. Don’t stage interventions in front of other people who haven’t done the preparation you have. There’s nothing worse than finally making progress with your loved one and having someone on the outside getting defensive and derailing the whole conversation! Don’t conduct these serious conversations in front of others unless they are in on the plan with you and have done the same pre-preparation you have.
  11. Try to get them to look at reality from many different perspectives. Hypothetical questions where they embody a belief they don’t have is good practice. Model this by doing this yourself with their belief.
  12. Teach them about indoctrination and mind control using examples they have NO attachment to, help them to discover that the manipulative techniques they decry with cults like Scientology are strikingly similar to techniques practiced by the cult they follow.
  13. Remember, more facts don’t always help. Do not overwhelm them with information, especially if it attacks the leader or doctrine.
  14. Ask a question and then wait for them to think and respond. You do not need to FILL silence. Pauses are where the thinking happens.
  15. Lead by example. Model this conversation technique for your other family members. Encourage others to keep the conversation positive if you see things going astray.

Remember, this won’t happen overnight but with calm and positive persistence, you can repair a relationship, and even help a loved one reform a destructive belief. 

Don’t get discouraged. People-even the most indoctrinated-can change. I was able to do so with the love and intervention of my family back in 1976. There is always hope.