I still remember to this day the shock, disgust and incredulity I felt watching the Westboro Baptist Church on TV for the first time. I could not believe that they proudly chanted and campaigned against values I presumed were universally shared. It was a truly shocking documentary filmed by Louis Theroux and in the following 15 years, each time I saw them make an appearance on a programme, my reaction remained consistent. One of the factors that made it even more bewildering was Megan Phelps, the granddaughter of the Church’s leader, was roughly the same age as me and so it was fascinating to see a girl that would not have looked out of place sitting in the same class as me at school, talk so passionately and in certainty that gay people would be sent to hell and justify the picketing of soldier's funerals to inform their families that the same fate awaited them.
Each time I saw her on TV, I was saddened to see how a clearly intelligent and articulate person could have had their world view poisoned and to deliberately bring so much negative attention on herself. I found the whole scenario extremely baffling but intriguing as well. When I found out that Phelps had been invited on the Joe Rogan Experience, one of the biggest podcasts in the world, I really looked forward to listening, as Rogan has the time to ask questions in a manner like no one on TV as he is not constricted by time and does not edit anything out. To my surprise though Megan had since left the church and is now ostracised by her family. The episode and Megan are fascinating as she has managed to pull herself out of the family’s bile and hate with compassion and intelligence. The podcast provided her with a platform to offer insight into the church and her past and current life that is so hard to fathom.
The story she provides about leaving the church is truly incredible and a lesson for us to think about when we are establishing the best way to influence someone out of an entrenched mindset. Whilst she was still in the church, she used social media to target groups with the church’s message. Then she engaged David Abitbol, a prominent Jewish personality on Twitter, initially to bait him, then to learn more about Judaism so she could use it to her own advantage when debating other Jews. His response at first was to mock her, but then he changed tact and began asking questions of her and the church’s message. Instead of becoming embroiled in fiery discourse which usually results in neither side wanting to back down, only serving to entrench the other side deeper into their position, he began influencing her by listening to what she was saying and enquiring into the logic of her reasoning. This made her question threads of the church’s rhetoric and start to arrive at conclusions she had not thought about before.
Abitbol was effectively intrinsically influencing her thoughts and feelings on a hugely personal and emotive topic, leading to an astounding switch in position which not only led to a revelation in Phelps’ mind, but also unimaginable heartbreak of deciding to leave her church and family for good.
The next time you are faced with a challenge which involves you influencing someone that is in an entrenched mindset, consider not just what you say to them, but also what you ask. It could be the difference between success and failure.