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Here’s What It Takes To Change Someone’s Mind

2023 April 9
by Greg Satell

When’s the last time you changed your mind about anything substantial? Was it another person that convinced you or an unexpected experience that changed your perspective? What led you to stop seeing something one way and start seeing it in another? I’ll bet it doesn’t happen often. We rarely change our minds.

Now think about how much time we spend trying to change other people’s minds. From sales pitches and political discussions, to what we’re going to have for dinner and when the kids should go to bed, we put a lot of time and effort into shaping the opinions of others. Most of that is probably wasted.

The truth is that we can’t really change anyone’s mind. Only they can do that. Yet as David McRaney explains in his new book, How Minds Change, there are new techniques that can help us be more persuasive, but they don’t require brilliant sophistry or snappy rhetoric. They involve more listening than speaking, and understanding the context in which beliefs arise.

Why We Fail To Adapt

We don’t experience the world as it is, but through the context of earlier experiences. What we think of as knowledge is really connections in our brains called synapses which develop over time.  These pathways strengthen as we use them and degrade when we do not. Or, as scientists who study these things like to put it, the neurons that fire together, wire together.

It’s not just our own experiences that shape us either. In fact, a series of famous experiments done at Swarthmore College in the 1950’s showed that we will conform to the opinions of those around us even if they are obviously wrong. More recent research suggests that this effect extends out to three degrees of influence, so it’s not just people we know personally, but the friends of our friends’ friends that shape how we see things.

Finally, there are often switching costs to changing our minds. Our opinions are rarely isolated thoughts, but form a basis for decisions. Once we change our minds, we need to change our actions and that can have consequences. We may need to change how we do our jobs, what we choose to buy, how we act towards others and, sometimes, who we choose to associate ourselves with.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the point that our beliefs become closely intertwined with our identity. They signal our inclusion in a particular “team.” That’s why contrary views can often feel like an attack. Rather than taking in new information we often feel the urge to lash out and silence the opposing voice.

Meeting The Mind Changing Threshold 

As closely as we cling to our beliefs, sometimes we do change our minds. In one study that analyzed voting behavior, it was found that when up to 20% of the information that people were exposed to contradicted their beliefs, they dug in their heels and grew more certain. Beyond that, however, their resolve tended to weaken. The informational environment can deeply influence what people believe.

Their relationship to the subject matter is also important.  The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) and the heuristic-systematic model (HSM) developed in the 1980s both suggest that we treat different topics in different ways. Some topics, such as those that are important to us professionally, we’re willing to invest time in exploring systematically. Others are more marginal to us and we will tend to look for shortcuts.

For example, if we are researching a business investment, we’ll want to gather facts from a variety of different sources and study them closely. On the other hand, if we’re trying to decide which craft beer to select from a large selection at a bar, we’ll rely on subtle cues such as packaging, how the beer is described or what we see others drinking.

If we want to change someone’s mind about something we need to understand their relationship to the subject matter. If they are heavily invested in it, they are unlikely to be swayed by superficial arguments. In fact, weak or purely emotive arguments may suggest to them that the opposite is true. At the same time, if someone is not very knowledgeable or motivated to learn about a topic, bogging them down with a lot of facts is likely to bore them.

Two Strategies For Persuasion

If you want to change somebody’s mind, you can follow two different kinds of approaches. The first, which can be called “topic denial”, argues the facts. The second, called “technique denial,” exposes flaws in reasoning. For example, if you want to convince a vaccine skeptic you can either cite scientific evidence or refute the form of the argument, such as pointing out that while there may be a minimal risk to taking a vaccine, the same could be said of aspirin.

While research shows that both approaches can be effective, we need to keep context in mind. If you are in a trustful environment, such as a professional or scientific setting, a fact-based topic rebuttal can often be effective. However, if you’re trying to talk your crazy uncle out of a conspiracy theory at Thanksgiving dinner, you may want to try a technique rebuttal.

In recent years a variety of methods, such as Deep Canvassing, Street Epistemology and the Change Conversation Pyramid have emerged as effective technique rebuttal techniques. Interestingly, they don’t rely on any elaborate rhetorical flourishes, but rather listening empathetically, restating the opposing position in a way that shows we understand it, identifying common ground and exploring how they came to their conclusion.

The truth is that we can never truly change somebody’s mind. Only they can do that. All too often, we treat opinions as if they were artillery in a battle. Yet attacking someone’s beliefs is more likely to raise their defenses than to convince them that they are in error. Before we can convince anyone of anything, we need to first build an environment of safety and trust.

Let Empathy Be You Secret Weapon

When we want to change somebody’s minds, our first instinct is to confront their beliefs. We want to be warriors and fight for our position. Yet because people’s opinions are often a result of their experiences and social networks, countering their beliefs won’t feel to them like merely offering a different perspective, but as an attack on their identity and dignity.

That’s why we’re much better off listening and building rapport. That’s not always easy to do, because staying silent while somebody is voicing an opinion we don’t agree with can feel like a surrender. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if we can identify a shared value and a shared language in an opposing viewpoint, we have a powerful tool to argue our position.

The truth is that empathy isn’t absolution. In fact, it can be our secret weapon. We don’t have to agree with someone’s belief to internalize it. We all have a need to be recognized and when we take the time to hear someone out, we honor their dignity. That makes them much more willing to hear us out. Lasting change is always built on common ground.

At some point, we all need to decide if we want to make a point or make a difference. If we really care about change, we need to hold ourselves accountable to be effective messengers and express ourselves in terms that others are willing to accept. That doesn’t in any way mean we have to compromise. It simply means that we need to advocate effectively.

To do that, we need to care more about building shared purpose than we do about winning points.


Greg Satell is Co-founder of ChangeOS, a Transformation & Change Advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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