Getting People To Change Their Minds

boxingChanging another person’s mind is literally one of the hardest things to do in the world.  Think of how many conversations you’ve ever had in which one of the participants decided the other was right and abandoned their previous views altogether.  It almost never happens.

Why?  Because even though ideas flit in and out of our heads like mosquitoes, ideas that are believed cling with electromagnetic power.  Once we believe an idea we develop an emotional connection to it, not to mention a commitment to it—as if to a person—and often become attached to it with a strength we often don’t realize has little to do with the merit of the belief itself.  And once we’re attached to anything—whether a person, place, thing, or idea—giving it up is extremely hard.  We will always grieve over a loss, no matter how small.

CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN IN A SNOWSTORM

Despite the difficulty of changing another person’s mind, sometimes it really is necessary to try.  Sometimes an idea to which we find a person attached poses a genuine risk to others  (believing, for example, Jews, blacks, Muslims, non-Muslims, Americans, or any other collection of individuals who share similar traits are in some way inferior to everyone else, abstracting them into something less than human and giving everyone else the right to treat them with anything other than loving compassion and kindness).  Even when the stakes are less dramatic, the effort required is often worth it.

So how can we succeed in changing another person’s mind when so much psychology is in play to thwart our efforts?  The following strategies may be a reasonable place to start (though are obviously by no means guaranteed):

  1. When introducing a new idea to someone, try to make them think it was theirs.  Though not easily done, people are far more likely to believe something is true if they discover it for themselves.  Sometimes the Socratic method works well here, but only if you ask questions in a way that communicates you’re genuinely interested in another person’s views rather than in leading them where you want them to go.
  2. Help others let go of erroneous belief without losing face.  The notion that being wrong connotes inferior intelligence is a powerful inducement for many to cling to positions they themselves may no longer strongly believe.  Sometimes it may be useful to put forth the idea that the frequency with which a person is correct and their value as a human being are two entirely separate things.
  3. Explore the underlying experience(s) that may be contributing to another person’s erroneous belief.  The emotional connection we feel to our beliefs is often powered more by the experiences that produced them than by the correctness of the beliefs themselves.  Exploring relevant formative events in a person’s life may not only give you insight into why they believe as they do but them as well.  If a belief seems to have evolved from faulty reasoning in response to such an event (a female teacher repeatedly berates and humiliates a boy for talking in class who then grows up believing women are controlling in general), the Socratic method may work well again for helping identify where the reasoning that led to the belief went wrong.
  4. Focus more on underlying assumptions.  People usually disagree on first principles, not on the reasoning that follows from them.  Seek whatever common ground may exist between your assumptions and the assumptions of others and explore the reasons for the differences from there.  If no common ground exists (which is hard to believe—even pro-choice and pro-life advocates tend to agree abortions aren’t actually desirable) go back to #3 and see if there’s any room for change.
  5. Concede minor points that makes sense to concede.  This will show others you’re willing to be proven wrong.  Role modeling that behavior will help them feel it’s okay to be wrong, too, and help you with #2.
  6. Become a trusted mentor.  Many of us have someone in our lives to whom we turn in times of trouble, someone whose judgment we trust, to whom our hearts are more receptive than anyone else, and to whom we’ll listen with a genuinely open mind.  Become that person to as many people as you can.  If you can, the power of the aforementioned techniques will be multiplied a thousand-fold.  It only requires you to become wise and caring.  Easy, right?

WHAT IF WE’RE THE ONES WHOSE MIND NEEDS TO CHANGE?

Of course, the foregoing has all been predicated on the assumption that in any given disagreement your idea is the correct one.  But if you always and only focus on changing the minds of others and never on your own, you’ll find yourself more often than not talking at others rather than with them (and they with you, each pausing while the other speaks not so much to listen but to think about what they want to say next), championing ideas rather than exchanging them, and learning nothing.  So before you go using any of these techniques on someone else, use them first on yourself.

Try to listen to others as if you hadn’t yet decided what you think about the subject under discussion, even if you have.  Remove, at least temporarily, your attachment to your own ideas.  Give the ideas of others a fair, unbiased hearing, as much as you’re able.  Notice which arguments cause you to react most negatively and rather than actually reacting negatively ask yourself what’s causing your reaction (no easy feat, certainly).  What experiences may you have reasoned from poorly to arrive at your beliefs?

If you try as hard as you can to embrace someone else’s belief but simply can’t become attached to it because you find it inferior by every measure on which you rely, and further your interest in changing their thinking stems from compassion (either to relieve them of suffering or prevent others from suffering at their hands) and not the common desire we all share to have everyone else in the world think exactly as we do—then approach the task of changing their thinking humbly, never allowing yourself to denigrate anyone because they won’t listen to your reason.  And always remember—especially when you fail—though many beliefs are genuinely dangerous, there’s far more room for differences of opinion than we commonly believe.

Next weekYou Can Always Do More

15 comments to Getting People To Change Their Minds

  • Chris

    Alex, you worked this out so elegantly…I find myself wondering if following your steps could lead to working agreements “on both sides of the aisle” in Congress.

    If you took the idea of universal health care—that in an advanced society, we all have a right to health care—and tried to get a basic agreement on that point, then perhaps a health care bill would eventually emerge.

    I think you should present this blog entry to Congress and offer to lead everyone through the steps…in the hope of breaking the deadlocks and stalemates on many issues.

    Chris: Wouldn’t that be nice!

    Alex

  • rdp

    Maybe this is just in the way you look at it, but it strikes me that people more often DON’T disagree on first principles, Alex, but DO disagree on the reasoning that follows.

    I notice this in contexts small and large. A neighbor is a special education teacher and recently was attacked by a 3rd grader. She understands the 3rd grader is emotionally disturbed, but she clearly believes that better discipline is what the situation requires. Meanwhile, in the political sphere, everybody believes in national security, but some doubted that invading Iraq would help that cause.

    Perhaps the clearest example of this relates to the well-being of children. Nearly everybody holds this to be of paramount importance, but one person believes well-being=computer literacy in grammar school, while another believes just the opposite. I have found that even introducing new research on the development of children’s brains has little to no impact when “everybody” is accustomed to looking at things in another way and it is easier to stay the course. And, of course, it does not matter how many times you introduce data on inattention while using cellphones (handheld or not); people who want to be able to use cellphones while driving keep doing it, even while embracing the idea of road safety.

    Don’t laugh, but I really have tried the strategies you list—though probably have not excelled at them. The problem (a problem) I run into frequently is that many people are not logical (or maybe their calculus relies on assumptions they never make explicit). I find we often share underlying assumptions but head off in opposite directions from them. (Sometimes it’s a matter of people using an experience they have had to support beliefs they are attached to even when, looked at logically, the experience doesn’t really support that belief.)

    How would you approach this mountain in a snowstorm, Alex?

    rdp: You make a good point. And though people often agree on things like ensuring the well being of children, what is the first principle inside the idea that computer literacy does this, or that it doesn’t? Why do people head in opposite directions from underlying assumptions? It’s often, I think, as you say, a matter of relying on an experience to support beliefs to which they’re attached, but there’s usually a first principle in there somewhere that explains the different directions people take (like you said calculus that relies on assumptions never made explicit). I was suggesting that rather than focus on the details of a disagreement, focus on the core of it.

    Alex

  • rdp

    So….the core of the disagreement would be—what? The hidden assumptions? I do find this confusing. Let’s take a less sensitive subject than the well-being of children; let’s say cell phone use while driving. I know some wonderful people who do this regularly. I assume their thinking runs along the same lines as it does for smokers: it’s not going to happen to me. I also suspect there’s a certain antipathy to reliance on data one can’t test for neutrality or validity. I actually share this skepticism. There is a lot of supposed “data” I ignore of because of the way in which a study was done, for instance. Yet not using a cell phone while driving seems like a no-brainer to me because: 1) if the data are correct, the risk is as high or higher than drunk-driving, and clearly that kills/injures others not just oneself and 2) even if the data are not correct, I experience cell-phone-using drivers as mostly inconsiderate of other drivers because their attention is elsewhere. What would you say the core of the disagreement is here? It would help me understand you better if you gave some examples of first principles as you see them.

    rdp: I’ll give it a shot. In your example, though both types of people—those who use cell phones while driving and those who don’t—might agree that talking on a cell phone while driving is a bad idea, the first principle on which they disagree is the very one you cite: the former group doesn’t believe they’re going to get into an accident and the latter group worries they will. The latter group can argue all day about the data, even convince someone from the former group their attention really does wander dangerously when they talk on the phone while driving, but unless they get that person to agree their first principle is wrong—that an accident can happen to them—the might as well be climbing a mountain in a snowstorm.
    ;)
    Alex

  • RG

    I like Alex’s way of framing the point: most of us make decisions based on anecdotal, not scientific, evidence. Too often people try to convince us to do things through facts, statistics. It’s not that we don’t believe the facts or that “80% of the people think they’re better than average drivers.” I think in order to get people to change existing habits, you have to engage them at a more emotional level. That’s why I think anecdotal evidence is so much more powerful; instead of the NYTimes article about texting/driving, it’s almost more effective to write about an incident that occurred through texting and driving. A bad accident, a family that lost a child…ironically, this is why lotteries are so effective, because the power of the person who won is more engaging than the statistical low likelihood of your winning. Somehow, you have to overcome the many, many instances in someone’s memory of having texted with no accident happening. The irony is that people worry about the wrong things—being a victim of the DC sniper over the 3 months of his activities was minuscule compared to the risks of drunk driving, but people upended their lives, pulled their kids out of school, were scared to buy gas, I can’t even fully describe the climate in the region at the time, but the exact opposite of the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome.

    RG: A very insightful comment (and not just because you liked the way I framed the point!).

    Alex

  • Craig

    Active listening and all the attendant activities that go with it seem to me to be critical to a flexible, open mind capable of change. Understanding that a person’s life experiences place some “color” of glass on a persons perspectives and views is critically important to understanding that person. Herein lies a critical and understated (purposefully?) message in Alex’s article: if we truly listen to another’s perspective and seek first to understand and second to be understood (quoting Franklin Covey here), then we stand a chance of truly broadening our perspective and understanding of the world around us.

    Therefore, I see this article not so much as a “how to” on changing other peoples minds as I do a reminder to keep our own minds open and flexible. Our mind’s eye has seen but one lifetime of experiences, but our network of friends and loved ones have each seen their own lifetime of experiences, which collectively, could and should provide an astute listener with many nuggets of wisdom, perspective, and valuable insight.

    Craig: I especially like the point in your last sentence.

    Alex

  • Shelley Kramer

    As a trial lawyer, it is my job to get people to make judgments and decide cases in the way that favors my client, hopefully the way that is “right,” or better still “true.” But often the problem is that before the trial even starts, people have their minds made up, based not on actual evidence but on their gut reactions and personal predilections. These beliefs can be extremely shallow and not thought out, but still tenacious, often inconspicuous or even unconscious, and sometimes insurmountable. Your techniques will make for an impressive closing argument that deals more directly with what’s really driving the decision-making.

    Shelley: Glad to help out.
    ;)
    Alex

  • rdp

    Hmm. Reading all this with interest and a measure of—I guess I’d say concern. The whole idea of engaging people’s emotions to move them to one conclusion or another began with the ancient art of rhetoric—a skill set with a long and checkered past. I am wary of trying to change people’s minds by engaging their underlying emotions. Most people, I think, are little acquainted with the particular features of their subterranean emotional landscape, and when we address an issue with emotional roots we use a blunt stick that is too easily used for ill. Fear that relates to a particular source or issue is felt but not analyzed and thus can be used to fuel a point of view most of us might judge misguided. This is, after all, how demagoguery works.

    RG, I appreciated your story about people’s reaction to the DC sniper. This is much like what I can only describe as the viral fear I have encountered of letting kids walk to school in a safe, suburban area. It seems not just counterintuitive, but somehow wrong, like telling people to use magical thinking to solve a problem, to suggest that one way to try to change their minds would be to address the emotional underpinnings of their opinions.

    But basically, I think I may not really understand your suggestions, Alex, because you have presented them without the kind of real-world examples you so helpfully usually provide. ;) I hope you will revisit this topic sometime again.

    rdp: What about someone who believes it’s all right to lynch African Americans? Or that it’s okay to blow up a bus with explosives strapped to their backs? Your point about the art of rhetoric is well taken, but it still seems to me there are times when we should make the attempt. Certainly, many of us do so when inappropriate, failing to examine our own beliefs adequately. But this seems to me no reason not to attempt to change the minds of others when what they think leads to dangerous action. And as for examples, I was hoping the one I gave in response to your last comment would do…

    Alex

  • RG

    “…when we address an issue with emotional roots we use a blunt stick that is too easily used for ill.” I’d argue that trying to change someone’s mind always has that potential, which is part of why we’re all advocating having conversations with an openness to having your own mind changed. I see your analogy to demagoguery but the reverse is equally true: Gandhi and Martin Luther King achieved their goals less through logic than emotion. At least fasting for peace has none of the elements of what Stephen Covey would call a “natural consequence.” I simply believe that most of our choices have almost no logical basis, they’re emotionally based. Thus, changing them involves addressing those roots.

  • rdp

    I feel I need to answer Alex’s question about lynching African-Americans. I also see a crucial difference between demagogues and leaders like Gandhi and MLK. I am really not trying to be nit-picky here, but rather to truly understand the essence of Alex’s piece. And also to find the boundaries of principled persuasion.

    In the instance Alex offered of lynching or strapping on explosives, frankly I would be less concerned with changing minds than with stopping the perpetrators. I am not sure the minds of people who spearhead these efforts can be changed by any external means. Those who enable them are another matter, however. I think with those who simply go along, persuasion in some fashion has a chance. I guess I was reacting with concern to Alex’s suggestions because, looking around, it seems people are much more easily—and frequently—persuaded to do the wrong thing—or at least the short-sighted/foolish thing than they are the long-term good. If a technique works, it will be used without regard for the ultimate consequences. It seemed important in that context to raise a cautionary flag to using emotions as opposed to logic or fact. And even when people mean well it doesn’t necessarily mean they will lead us to the good. We may respond to them and their warmth emotionally, but it would be a mistake to follow what they say just because we respond to them. But perhaps what you, RG, are saying is that that’s just the way it is?

    In the case of leaders like MLK and Gandhi, don’t you think the persuasive force came in large part because they were willing to put their own bodies on the line they were urging people to cross? This is something I do endorse: trying to require of yourself whatever you ask of others. And not expecting others to do what you yourself would not. I guess I am just really ambivalent about using emotions (which often mark people’s vulnerabilities rather than their strengths) to change minds. You may be saying that that’s the best means we have. I kind of feel as if we are in different corners of the same paper bag, but not seeing the same way out…

    rdp: I would only point out that as unlikely as it may be that we could change the mind of a suicide bomber, it’s been documented that they change their own minds all the time. It may be unlikely, but it is possible. And if those of us in a position to try don’t, whether by using some of the techniques I described in the post or by addressing the underlying conditions that may have led a suicide bomber to embrace suicide bombing in the first place, aren’t we failing to attack the problem of suicide bombing at its core—that suicide bombers consider killing others (along with themselves) as an acceptable means of bringing about change?

    Alex

  • rdp

    Yes, you are right about that, Alex; we must always try. And I do agree that it is our responsibility to turn what we can to the good, wherever we can do that. It’s really clear cut when you talk about suicide bombing and lynching; but suppose you take foot binding, from inside the culture that required it. Obviously wrong, from my pov, but totally accepted by the Chinese of that era—as are many things we do in our culture that we do not regard as scarring but I think are. And what about when an “enlightened” people or group come in and tell others what they are doing is wrong only it turns out the “enlightened” group is wrong in the end? I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how many instances history holds of this. Even doctors, whose ruling principle, first do no harm, I try to apply to as much in life as I can, have done much damage when armed with certainty about their techniques. (If, back in the day when mercury was regarded as medicinal, a doctor were urging me to use it, I would NOT want him to use my emotions to get me to agree. Even if the chances I could make an informed decision on my own were slim, I would prefer to try based on what facts I could gather.) To go back to my original point of concern, though, it wasn’t that we shouldn’t try to change minds; it was that trying to change minds by triggering emotional “pressure points” could not be distinguished from manipulation. It is done, but is not a tool I would choose for moving people to the good.

    I’m no expert, obviously, but it has always struck me that suicide bombers are using their bodies as vile language is used, meant both to protest and to underscore what they experience as inarticulate powerlessness. I wonder if the key to change these minds doesn’t have to be individually cast.

  • Su

    Wow! Very intense debate going on here. My 2 cents worth…

    First, the only reason to change someone else’s mind is if you believe your own arrogance is more important than theirs.

    Secondly, if you find it necessary to try to change someone else’s mind, be prepared to fail. Now if you’re trying to convince someone of a principal that you truly believe in, that’s called preaching, and I know that people are easily led, then all you have to do is appeal to their emotions, which is what all religions and other organizations do on a regular basis.

    Is that right? Is that fair?

    Ultimately, it’s politics.

    So, why try to change anyone’s mind at all? Except, of course, if you’re looking for votes?!

  • Pawan Garg

    Well…I shall think of applying this logic of changing other’s minds not only in politics but also at various other institutions such as family. Normally a family has a head/leader, which is most of the times an elderly person. But then I am having a family where there is absence of such a person and myself being just 34 years happen to be the eldest son of the family. I am married and have two lovely kids. But so is my younger brother, and fortunately our individual families live together in our native home. So we all being young people [age range being 28 to 34 years], we feel literally devastated when there occurs an issue on which we all have diverse opinions. In that case, we really need to change each other’s minds so that an amicable solution is forged. And some times we succeed in doing so. But then until now our discussions were lacking in finding a means or robust way of influencing other’s minds, which I think will not happen from now onward. Many thanks Dear Alex.

  • Shan

    Well, the place that I most often try to change someone’s mind is in interpersonal reactions. I don’t know how often at work I hear “that person is out to get me” when, to my mind, that person isn’t out to get you—I’m pretty sure that I’m not important enough to be worth all that effort than something else… and I don’t want to work in a workplace where a large number of people are defensive and taking things personally.

    I have also been in the situation where I’m trying to get something done RIGHT (I know in itself that is an arrogant term)—in one case it was for drilling into a live line at a chemical plant (i.e., a line with stuff running through it)… so, in that case it’s not arrogance but rather the hope that the person doing the work (not either of those involved in the discussion) wouldn’t get hurt.

    I will also add “use what’s important to the other person” or “give them a way out.” For example, if I were trying to get my boss to treat a member of a minority group better (this has never been an issue) I might mention my “all people be treated equally” comment, but to change behavior I would likely use “and you’ll get better work out of them.”

    I would also add, “decide what is important”—do you want to change someone’s belief or their behavior (like was mentioned earlier), the core belief (parents should help their child learn the skills to function in society) is likely the same; however the intervening (beating them is the best way to do that) may not be…

    My thoughts only

    *************previous message ******
    Su
    February 19th, 2010 at 2:32 am

    Wow! Very intense debate going on here. My 2 cents worth…

    First, the only reason to change someone else’s mind is if you believe your own arrogance is more important than theirs.
    (snip)

  • epson expression 1000xl

    I find that is very difficult to change someone’s mind, especially in Asia. When one has made up his mind, nobody can persuade him to change his mind, not even his opinion. That person would think he is right, no matter what. That can lead into a heated argument or fist fight if you try to change his mind. I think he forgot to think he is a human being that can be wrong sometimes.

  • Aric

    Quoting more official sources, instead of myself, gives a lot more weight to the idea as being correct.

    Instead of saying “I think XYZ to be true,” it seems to come off better to people when it’s said “My teacher/professor said XYZ to be true, and it amazed me” or “This book says XYZ to be true, what do you think of it?”

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