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Welcoming Refugees into Our Communities

Changing Hearts and Minds

Author: Stephanie Farr

I’m often told that I’m not ‘your usual analyst’ and I like to think of that as a compliment. I’ve heard it said that I’m idealistic or, more politely, an eternal optimist because I think I can make some positive change through my work. Personally, I think perhaps people just don’t notice the small changes they make day after day and how they contribute to a bigger picture. 

To illustrate my point, I want to talk about some work I did a few years ago when I decided it was my local authorities’ duty to help resettle Syrian refugee families. I heard the usual, ‘it’s a nice idea but there’s no way it’ll happen’ from colleagues. The local authority I worked in had absolutely zero experience of this type of work and I was just some researcher with a grand (read expensive) idea. So, how am I going to get a Cabinet full of Councillors, who don’t know me from Eve, to agree to risk their ever-dwindling public funds on something they know nothing about when the feeling was that there would be strong opposition from particular communities and there were problems closer to home? I’m so glad you asked. 

I’m a researcher at heart so that’s the natural place to start. I want to know as much as I can about a subject first. I can’t champion a cause I don’t understand or agree with. Beyond this, I research who would be sympathetic to the cause. Who is open to new ideas? Who might feel ready for a change? They also need to be senior enough that they’ll have some sway with the next few levels up but not so senior as they don’t have the time or headspace to think about something new. I go along and talk to them about my idea and why I want to do it. My reasons are almost always humanitarian ones (unless I throw in a financial argument if I think it’ll help with that particular individual) and my research so thorough that it’s not usually very difficult to convince one individual to help. 

I found towing the line between formal and informal the most helpful here. The first conversation was only a few minutes long so getting across a well-articulated argument with a few laughs thrown in here and there was the easiest way to get support and be remembered. He agreed to speak to the Chief Exec and put a few feelers out with some Councillors who might be supportive. I rounded off what we’d both agreed to do and spotted the ‘she’s not going to drop this’ grin before we went our separate ways.

Armed with my solitary supportive ‘in principle’ individual, it’s time to gather the masses. This is the most challenging, frustrating, exhausting, fantastic step and I love it! Going back to the Syrian Resettlement Programme example, this meant speaking to communities, talking to them about their concerns and ultimately trying to change the minds of some people who quite frankly didn’t want to change their minds. There were, of course, a huge number of supportive people within these communities too but for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on those that weren’t. 

I would argue that changing your mind is a behaviour. I think we’ve all had an argument with someone we could call ‘bloody minded’. Someone who won’t change their mind despite everything pointing to the contrary. Behaviour Change Theory argues that you need the Capability, Opportunity and Motivation to change a behaviour.1 Armed with this knowledge, I hatched a plan to address each of these with everyone I spoke with (and there were hundreds) in the hopes that there’d be no reason left not to support the programme. 

Capability is an interesting one and I’ve spoken to people who don’t understand how someone could lack the capability to change their mind. However, we have a little thing called confirmation bias going on in our minds which tends to hear and confirm the ideas that conform with beliefs we already hold and discount those that do not. An example study in the US gave two groups of people papers that either supported or opposed their feelings about capital punishment.3  They were asked about their opinion of the death penalty and were then given criticisms and author rebuttals on the papers and asked whether they had changed their minds. Their opinions actually became more polarised in strongly supporting their originally held beliefs. 

This, among other studies, indicates that beliefs aren’t always grounded in logic or evidence and people are likely to view evidence in a biased way. So perhaps hitting people with the cold hard facts isn’t going to be enough to change minds but some people need these and, for some people, their capability to change their mind is around the ideas they previously held about refugee families. Getting information in there that challenges those ideas gets us one step closer. 

The second thing to consider is impact bias. We struggle to accurately predict how a change is going to make us feel, either positively or negatively, which leads us to think the change is going to have a much bigger impact on us than it actually does. Interestingly, when a change does happen, and it’s one we’ve been opposed to, the brain shifts quite quickly into accepting the new normal. But we still have to get enough people on board to get to the change we’re trying to make. To tackle this, I made sure I included examples of areas that were already resettling families and positive outcomes they’d seen for both the families and the communities they’d moved into. There were some amazing examples from Wales where resettled families had given out yellow roses to people in their new community as a sign of friendship and thanks for welcoming them. 

The final thing I considered when speaking to people was about the way I was speaking to them. Cornell University studied the ‘Change my view’ Reddit community to look for patterns in what people said were the arguments that changed their minds about a particular statement.3  The most compelling arguments tended to be those that weren’t overtly emotional, ones that avoided rants, ones that used words that were different from the original statement and ones that used hedging arguments so people don’t feel bulldozed. This is the most challenging part. 

There would usually be one individual who still wasn’t convinced and wanted me to hear their personal grievances. Often it was things like they believed their house price would come down or people would be out praying in the street at all hours of the night. These are ideas that are so deeply ingrained that no amount of facts or emotional pleading will ever change. However, I did discover that these people generally just want to be listened to and don’t actually care to hear what you have to say to the contrary. Once they felt listened to, I saw the change in them and they started to open up to the possibility of listening.

Some of the most challenging individuals I’ve spoken to went on to be the biggest advocates for the programme and the families that were eventually resettled. Some have gone on to call themselves family to those newly resettled individuals and challenged others’ opinions around them. Who better to change the mind of someone than a person who previously felt the same way? By this point you’ve created yourself a small army of people trying to change the hearts and minds of others and you’re starting to create a movement. 

Now whilst I’ve been off securing the masses, my supportive individual has been having casual conversations with decision makers and dropping the idea into people’s laps. I don’t want them to do anything more than that, just to plant the seed so it’s not completely out of the blue because it’s time to deal with the big boys!
Never underestimate the power of a well written, well researched and well-argued paper. I’ve already done all my research at the beginning and I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about their concerns so I have a pretty good idea of the challenges that might come forward when trying to get agreement for this project and I just ensure I address each and every one of them in turn. 

It’s time for Cabinet, the day of reckoning. I’m armed with my supportive individual who takes the paper, I’m there to answer questions and the room is full of people from the communities I’ve engaged with who are there to support the proposal. It’s tense. I’m near the bottom of the agenda so I sit through all the budget concerns, all the building and land sales, all the public concerns about one thing or another. Finally, it’s my paper. I’m on the edge of my seat thinking there’s going to a mob scene if they don’t agree. There’s no need to panic, unanimous support, no questions and a commendation for a well-argued paper. It’s now on to the hard work of making it real! But that’s a story for another day. 

I personally went on to resettle 14 families and, when I left the programme, I left it in very good hands and it has grown to welcome more families. By the time I left I had over 100 volunteers supporting families and we had one of the best examples of a co-produced resettlement programme in England. I hear from the families frequently (especially the children who like to call me ‘auntie’) and many are in work or volunteering, some are off to University or college. Every single person learnt English and took to their new communities and lives in such a positive way that I can’t imagine I would have done as well in other country. This is all down to the people in the communities they live in who went out of their way to welcome them, support them, help them find work and so many more things I can’t possibly list them all. I heard very recently that lots of those same volunteers are shielding at the moment and the resettled families are now looking after them. 

I didn’t realise it at the time when I devised my plan to change hearts and minds, but I would go on to use the same basic process every time I wanted someone to take a chance on something new or think about something differently. I’d be asked to do presentations, events and workshops with the sole purpose of getting people on board with something new or challenging and only once did I hear the words ‘don’t send the northerner in!’ yelled playfully across the office from my boss. I blame the excess caffeine for my optimism high that day!

It’s said that a critical mass of opposition can tilt the balance as people stop rationalising the status quo and start feeling they can make a change and so move into action. We’ve seen this on a huge scale just this month with protests and challenges to the government. We’re currently living through the biggest global change seen in a very long time. I would argue that opportunity is upon us. It’s easier to start a new behaviour in a period of change in life than it is when a behaviour has already been established. 

My theory of change has worked for me throughout my ten years of public service and when I sit and think about the change I’ve made I’m actually incredibly proud of the work I’ve done, not just with Syrian refugee families (who by the way I’m now very good friends with) but with bringing new ways of thinking into organisations, getting people to work together on achieving shared outcomes, or changing the opinion that ‘food poverty isn’t an issue here’, for example.

An old boss of mine used to say that all decision making is emotional, and I think he’s right. From crisis can come opportunity and problems that seemed too big to change before could perhaps now seem more possible if we really consider how to make it happen.

Or perhaps I’m just an eternal optimist.


1. Michie S, Van Stralen M M & West R (2011) The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6 (42). Available at: https://implementationscience.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1748-5908-6-42

2. Lord C G, Ross L & Lepper M R (1979) Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11), 2098–2109.

3. Tan C, Niculae V, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil C & Lee L (2016) Winning arguments: Interaction dynamics and persuasion strategies in good-faith online discussions. New York: Cornell University. Available at: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1602.01103v1.pdf

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Welcoming Refugees into Our Communities: Changing Hearts and Minds © Stephanie Farr 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.


Stephanie Farr

Stephanie Farr


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