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Dealing with People Who Deny Reality

Facts or feelings? Which result in the most productive conversations?

In this age of alternative facts and fake news, truth denialism is at an all-time high in our society. The holidays provide ample opportunity to experience this phenomenon first-hand, as you’re seated next to Uncle Jimmy who runs through the entire spectrum of Obama-Is-A-Muslim, All-Muslims-Are-Terrorists, and (oh by the way) Climate-Change-Is-A-Hoax rhetoric you can stomach during the holiday dinner that never ends.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University, offers a positive, step-by-step approach for that holiday dinner conversation in his article, How to Address Truth Denialism Effectively Over the Holidays. It’s worth saving and practicing in preparation for your next round of holiday dinners. But you can probably put his good advice to work even sooner – maybe even tomorrow at the office.

Truth denialism at the holiday table might not come as a huge surprise. But it shouldn’t surprise you at work either. If you’re trying to have productive conversations with people who deny reality at work — even with those in the highest levels of leadership –you’re not alone! LeadershipIQ.com interviewed 1087 board members of 286 organizations where CEOs were forced out. Nearly 25% of those CEOs were fired for “denying reality.” These CEOs discounted, sugarcoated, or flat out denied bad news or unfavorable results.

In a separate article aimed at truth denialism in the workplace, Tsipursky notes that this tendency to deny uncomfortable facts is sometimes called the “ostrich effect.” It might be even more contagious than the bird flu among leaders because organizations where CEOs deny negative facts are more likely to cultivate a culture of denying reality throughout the organizational hierarchy. (Would that create a flock … or a herd … of ostriches?)

Even at work, then, reality denial is a fact of life. And productive conversations are particularly important at work. So back to the question. Facts or feelings? Which one will help you most in your efforts to have productive, reality-based conversations?

Facts are tempting. But Tsipursky’s work suggests that we should fight our natural inclination to confront denial with facts – at least as a first step. 

Personal experience supports that suggestion. Think about it. How many times have you rolled out a list of facts and figures only to watch your conversational partner dig in even deeper and become even more entrenched in his or her original position? 

Facts and figures are just beating a dead horse — they won’t get you anywhere.

Tsipursky says feelings are at the root of truth denialism so the cure has to start there — with feelings. Empathy is the best (and maybe only) way to help people through the emotional block that’s driving their denialism. This is EQ101. Genuine curiosity, a willingness to listen…and a thick skin…will all help you as you try to understand and empathize with how another person is feeling.

+     Start with understanding your colleague’s goals, values, hopes and fears. Ask        questions and really listen.

+      Find some shared value or goal with that person and build trust with that shared reality as the foundation.

+     Then (and only then) find a way to share facts and real-life stories that help your colleague see how his or her entrenched position is actually conflicting with those values or getting in the way of achieving those goals.

Feelings come first. Facts come later. As the truism goes: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” There’s no denying that one!


This post references these two articles by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University and author of The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science Based Guide

· How to Address Truth Denialism Effectively Over the Holidays

· Got a Boss Who Denies Reality? A Behavioral Scientists’ Guide to Tactful Truthtelling

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