Changing a Mind

bg-smWhen I am listening to talk radio sometimes I wonder what it would take to get through to someone, to actually change a mind, or at least open it. What could I say or do, to him or her? How do we change our deeply held beliefs?  What is it that makes the difference, so that the old, misguided way doesn’t suit us anymore? This question is especially intriguing for me as a mediator, working with those who are deeply committed to the positions they have staked out.

And so I think about myself. Have I ever changed my mind about a deeply held belief, shed a prejudice for good? The answer is yes.

Many years ago I was on a flight from DC to Albuquerque. The flight was completely full. Seating is first come first served on Southwest and by the time I started down the aisle, there wasn’t a lot left. I wanted to be as far forward as possible. I am not a happy flier, and the bumps are less violent in the front than in the back so I grabbed the first aisle seat available.

Amid the usual bustle of people getting themselves organized I heard the woman across the aisle say, “Oh, look, there’s a woman pilot.” I glanced toward the cockpit. Sure enough a blond, perky young thing was swinging through the door into one of the pilots seats. Not a flight attendant, because she had a different uniform, with epaulets on her shoulders.

I know it’s wrong, but I ‘m not comfortable with female pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit it. My friends have scorned me, my own intellect tells me I’m way out of step, but it’s a deeply held prejudice, and I cling to it. It’s just the way it is. How can a woman fly a big heavy piece of machinery like a jet? Surely that’s a man’s job. I like that nice, reassuring male voice coming over the speaker, “Good morning, folks, this is Captain Osgood from the cockpit…” I like that. I picture him up there, with his compadre, both big and brawny, with sinewy arms, gripping the controls with strong, agile fingers, flipping switches and turning knobs. And both with clear eyes, maybe blue, maybe brown, but sharp as the eyes of a hawk. Yes, all male parts in the cock pit. I suppose, in fact, that’s why they call it the cock pit.

So, spotting this diminutive woman disappearing into the cockpit was unsettling for me. I was nervous enough, worrying that there was a preponderance of overweight people aboard or that someone might have smuggled an exploding pen aboard, and now I had a female pilot on my mind.

A few minutes after take off the captain came on. It was a she and she clearly was not a flight attendant. She had a note of authority, and none of the flirtatiousness which Southwest flight attendants seem to be able to communicate over the intercom. She spoke of the flying altitude, of the weather ahead, of her hopes that we all would enjoy the flight. Well, that’s nice, I thought to myself. The real pilot, the man who is next to her, let her address the passengers, and she did a good job. Yes, quite appropriate, quite dignified, with a touch of warmth, just a touch. This will be fine.

There was choppy air, and she came on again to explain that we would be going to a higher altitude. And as we neared Albuquerque she came on to warn us that we should stay in our seats, winds were up to 35 miles per hour, and unfortunately it would be a rough ride. The flight attendants should buckle themselves in, too. We would be on the ground in 20 minutes.

Those 20 minutes were like an endless rodeo ride, lurching, bucking, rocking, jerking, dropping. Passengers were silent, with occasional groans or gasps. I was dreading the landing. As we lunged at the runway, the plane straightened its wings, and touched down perfectly, elegantly, without a bounce or a quaver. Everyone clapped spontaneously, and the flight attendant came on to say, “Welcome to Albuquerque everyone, and be sure to thank those pilots for a great landing.”

As I filed down the aisle to deplane, I paused at the cockpit door. It was open. I stuck my head in, “Thank you so much. That was really a great landing!”

Two heads turned from the panel of dials, switches and buttons. “You’re very welcome,” said the blond woman I had seen before take off.  I glanced at the other seat. “Thanks for flying with us,” added the other – a brunette, with her hair in a bun and a pleasant smile. Two women pilots. The most perfect landing imaginable.

And my prejudice is gone forever.

So, I ask, what does it take to make a deep change like that — besides a traumatic event?

14 thoughts on “Changing a Mind

  1. Thanks for this piece, Lucy. I’m glad you were willing to reveal your little prejudice about female pilots and that you happily got over it! The difference between you and the usual folks who listen to talk radio is that YOU ARE A VERY OPEN PERSON. Most of the folks I’ve encountered who are devotees of talk radio are decidedly NOT open. So I think it would take a whole hell of a lot of turbulence to change their minds.

    Cheers to you on your lovely new website!

  2. I read an article in the NY Times today about a social media app called Yik Yak. The app allows totally anonymous posts. Not surprisingly, a fair portion of the posts are racial, demeaning and hurtful. I was wondering why, when we think no one will know, out baser thoughts come out so readily. And I wondered if there was anything I could say that would change someone else’s mind, and keep them from posting something negative. I couldn’t think of anything. Changing one’s own mind is hard enough, I guess.

    1. And then, today we see the selfie video of fraternity brothers on a bus being incredibly stupid and prejudiced — not hiding, but showing off apparently. We are strange beings.

  3. Thanks, Lucy, for this important topic – it is central to our work. Kay, if you haven’t heard it already, there was a wonderful piece on This American Life in January about an internet troll who changes his way and apologizes: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/545/if-you-dont-have-anything-nice-to-say-say-it-in-all-caps. So much of what it takes seems to include a rehumanizing of the other – even short of the perfect landing, meeting the pilots’ families and hearing their stories could probably go a long way to breaking down stubborn assumptions. I recently had an experience where previously antagonistic stakeholders moved toward consensus based on the trust built from months of sincere grappling.

  4. Speaking as a lawyer, I think the most common way of changing minds is to convince someone that they have always believed the new position, even when they didn’t know it. Lawyers argue as if no case is new; everything is an extension of something that has happened before, read properly. This is not a bad approach–it reflects what we are. No one is comfortable with treading on new ground (even when we find it exciting and adventurous), and we succeed at it best when we build a bridge to it from ground we are sure of. I read your story that way, Lucy. You already believed intellectually that women could fly plans. Your practical personal experience build you a bridge to bring together your intellectual belief and your feelings. It was not so much a change of mind as a victory of mind over prejudice. That’s a great victory, and I don’t mean to belittle it, but there are different types of cases. What about where you believe something with your whole heart and mind, but later lay it down? How did that happen?

    My daughter is trans. For years, as a feminist, I believed that men and women were the same inside, and that gender differences were matters of societal training. She tells me that is not true, and I believe her. I’m busy building a bridge to that belief, and could use some help with construction.

  5. Lucy, I LOVED this piece! And, yes, you did surprise me! You also made me laugh out loud when I read this, “Yes, all male parts in the cock pit. I suppose, in fact, that’s why they call it the cock pit.”
    A gorgeous, wise, honest piece that made me think of my assumptions and what I need to re-think. Exquisitely done!
    xox Dawn

  6. Thanks for a great piece, Lucy. Let’s remember that managers at Southwest Airlines had to take a chance on public perception … and took it. Bravo for them. Then a manager likely said, “The computer scheduled two women pilots on the same flight; shall we override it?” And another manager said, “Heck no.” Now I am an even bigger fan of Southwest Airlines. Lucy, did you send the piece to Southwest Airlines?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*