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How to Change People’s Minds

Attacking beliefs with facts never works. Instead, direct those beliefs to a different conclusion.

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BY Geoffrey James - 08 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In business as in life, your success can be dependent upon changing other people's minds or opinions so that they agree with your own. This is surprisingly difficult and few people do it well. That's why bosses are often "my way or the highway"--that way they don't need to do the hard work of "winning hearts and minds."

Judging from discussions on the Web, many people wrongly think that you can change other people's minds is by insulting them, preferably in ALL CAPS. Needless to say, this never works. In fact, being a "jerk on the other side" hardens other people's opinions, making it more difficult to change their minds.

Intelligent people--I think it's fair to include the readers of the column in that category--usually take a different tack. They assemble an array of facts that support their own position and will thus convince other people of the error of their ways.

Surprisingly, this "appeal to the facts" strategy isn't much more effective than the schoolyard taunt approach. At least not when it really counts.

Facts usually don't change minds because people's beliefs pre-determine which facts they consider valid or relevant. The stronger the belief, the more effectively people manage to ignore or discount facts that tend to undermine that belief. When beliefs are strong, contrary facts tend to strengthen rather than weaken those beliefs.

What Makes Beliefs Strong

When you want to change another person's opinion, your first challenge is to assess the strength of the beliefs that are supporting the opinion that you wish to change. Strong beliefs emerge from the following four sources:

  1. Repetition. When people hear or see a belief repeated and reinforced by the selective presentation of facts, they believe it more strongly. The entire concept of advertising is based upon this tendency. For example, when I used to sell against IBM, a common obstacle was the widely-repeated belief that "nobody ever got fired for going with IBM."
  2. Employment. When people feel that they MUST believe something in order to remain employed, they will cling to that belief in the face of a mountain of contrary facts. As Upton Sinclair famously said: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
  3. Security. When people feel that their lives and the lives of their families are threatened, they glom onto any belief that makes them either feel more secure in the moment or which promises security in the future. An obvious example here, in my biased opinion, is how many people feel safer when carrying a gun, despite a mountain of facts to the contrary.
  4. Identity. The strongest all beliefs are those by which individuals define who they are. For example, if a person is raised in a highly religious culture, it's very difficult to change opinions that seem consistent with religion. The person will tend to interpret any attack on the religion (or the opinions based upon it) as a personal attack.

Pressure Creates Resistance

Any beliefs or opinions that spring from one or more of the above sources cannot be changed directly. The more facts you muster to support your viewpoint, the more it will harden the other person's mind against your viewpoint. Same thing if you attempt to debunk the facts that the other person has marshaled to support that belief.

When attempting to change somebody's mind, the essential rule is that "pressure creates resistance." The more you push, the more the other person pushes back. To illustrate this principle, envision two guys arguing. One shoves the other backwards. The inevitable response? The guy who was just shoved shoves right back.

Another example is nagging. As anyone who's nagged a child about doing chores knows, the amount of nagging is inversely proportional to the chores that will get done. In this case, the resistance is usually passive-aggressive, like "I forgot..." or "I have homework" (after he's been watching TV for hours). What does work is the old carrot/stick, but that's another story.

In business, the best example of "pressure creates resistance" is high pressure sales. While such tactics can sometimes overwhelm prospects into saying "Yes" (almost always resulting in buyer's remorse), they mostly alienate prospects and drive them to buy elsewhere. This is why high pressure sales only survives today in situations, like car-buying, where the prospect has few alternatives.

Because pressure creates resistance, it's futile to attempt change somebody else's mind through a direct assault when their mind is made up because of their beliefs. It requires another approach altogether.

How To Change Somebody's Mind

Rather than pushing against the other person's beliefs, and thus creating resistance, you show the other person how their beliefs actually support your viewpoint, rather than the viewpoint that they currently espouse. This is a three-step process:

  1. Validate the beliefs. The opposite of "pressure creates resistance" is that "acceptance creates flexibility." Showing that you understand the other person's beliefs and accept them as valid (even if you don't 100% agree with them) causes the other person to relax, especially true if they were expecting you to attack them directly.
  2. Weaken the connections. Lead the other person to see flaws in the logic that connects their belief to the conclusion or opinion that you'd like to change. This is best done through questions rather than statements, because questions lead the other person to hold forth from "center stage," while statements are likely to feel like an attack.
  3. Reconnect the beliefs. Show how the other person's beliefs--when taken in total--more naturally lead to different conclusions or opinions than the ones they've previously reached. In other words, you never attempt to change the other person's beliefs; you merely show how a different conclusion better reflects those beliefs.

I originally intended to provide some examples of how the process works, but this post is getting a little long, so I'll hold off until tomorrow.