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Marriage equality: how to change a ‘no’ voter’s mind

Hint: it’s not about hammering them with logic.

“I just want to punch them.” Those are words from a friend of mine, describing how she feels when she meets someone who wants to vote ‘no’ in the upcoming marriage equality postal vote.

Their response is a little incautious – but understandable. We’re not debating the merits of cats versus dogs. This is about real people and real families, who are being told they are less valuable than others and called “fags”, “paedophiles” and worse. “When I read or hear comments like that I just want to cry. It’s debilitating,” Brooke Cahill, a 24-year-old lesbian from Sydney, told Marie Claire. “Then I want to get angry and attack them back.”

Problem is, anger doesn’t change minds. The aim of the game isn’t to put bigots in their place. It’s to win the damned plebiscite. And polls show that No voters are feeling increasingly bullied, silenced and ostracised. Maybe they deserve to be bullied, silenced and ostracised – welcome to the way gays and lesbians have felt forever, guys – but the outcome isn’t what the Yes vote wants or needs. Yelling back just digs people into their trenches. To paraphrase Oprah, you don’t force change through shame.   

So is it possible to change a No voter’s mind – or even more critically, someone who’s ambivalent (after all, it wasn’t the Trump supporters who lost the 2016 US Election for Hillary Clinton. It was the “I’m just going to stay out of it” brigade)? Maybe. Clinton voters certainly tried, though obviously a bit too late in the game. Slowly, people began realising that hammering back with facts or logic or hurling insults about Trump just made his supporters more gleeful and defensive. And forced the crucial fence-sitters to retreat altogether.

Professor Matthew Hornsey, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland has done a lot of research around persuasion, and why people stick to their guns in the face of all available evidence. He has some ideas. And some of them are not what you might think:


It’s a universal truth that we’re never persuaded by people who don’t like us. So the first step in converting people to your cause is to communicate warmth and liking for them. There’s no place for moral shaming, superior tones or raised voices … this can feel good, but you’re venting, not persuading.This is particularly true of same-sex marriage. When Tony Abbott launched the unofficial No campaign, he said “If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote ‘No’, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote ‘No’” This is clever: the No campaign is telling people opposed to same-sex marriage that they’re the victims of persecution and prejudice, and the best way for them to fight back is to exercise their voice in the voting booth. So if you find yourself shutting people down, talking over them or morally shaming them, you’re falling into the Abbott trap. Your reaction is well-meaning and understandable, but you’re probably boosting the No vote.


When people justify any argument, they feel compelled to attach some kind of logic to it. Your no-voting aunt, for example, might tell you that gay marriage is bad for kids. You know the research shows that this isn’t true, and you jump in to say that. That’s completely understandable, but it’s also a classic mistake. Study after study shows that “facts” often don’t cause attitudes; instead, people have attitudes and then retro-fit facts to rationalise them. So it’s possible that your aunt’s opposition to same-sex marriage is not about the kids at all, but a gut-feeling or intuition that relates to something else entirely – political correctness, a feeling the world is changing too fast or that gay couple down the street who never says hello.

If you jump into fact-wars too early you might be missing the point, and the debate goes down a cul-de-sac. So try to ignore the surface arguments and listen to the underlying emotion. Take the time to work out what’s really driving their position, and then work from that place.


Given that we’re so persuaded by our own arguments, we often think “If I just place those arguments in someone else’s head, they’ll see the world the same way I do”. But people who think the art of conversion is just about saying what they think often struggle – if it were that easy we’d change people’s minds all the time! Talking is overrated. Effective persuaders are good at asking questions, and they’re good at listening. They start with the other person’s worldview and work backwards. Find out the values, ideologies and fears that are important to them, and then tailor your argument to align with their values.

It’s amazing how often people start to come around to your point of view just by stating their arguments out loud, and hearing them not quite add up. Research shows that high-quality listening alone can reduce people’s anxiety, reduce their defensiveness, and give them “enough rope” to admit out loud their own logical inconsistencies.


Cast your mind back to those times when, in a heated debate, someone has changed their mind right there in front of you. Struggling to think of any? That’s because it almost never happens. People feel too proud to change their mind in the moment. Many studies show that the process of conversion happens slowly and privately … people try out new ideas in their head before they’re prepared to admit to them. So if you’re doing your best, but all you’re seeing and hearing is head-shaking and disagreement, then don’t be disheartened. You could be planting a seed that will flower in a few days or weeks or months. Keep fighting the good fight, and don’t give up.


It isn’t easy trapping flies with honey when you just want to drown the buggers in vinegar. You may have to bite your tongue or sit on those punchin’ hands. But when you wake up on November 26, the day after the government announces the results of the polls, which would you rather be – righteous with anger or simply right?

WATCH: Lisa called her grandma about marriage equality and you will cry all the tears:

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