When’s the last time you changed somebody’s mind? Like, really changed their mind, on something meaningful?
I’ll give you a second to think about it…
Okay, second over. Did you come up with anything?
My guess is that you probably didn’t. And that’s okay, because changing people’s minds is pretty much the hardest thing in the world to do.
And for the rest of you sitting there thinking, ‘Hey, I did think of a time I changed somebody’s mind!’ just hold onto your britches for a second, I’ve got a guess for you too.
My guess is that when you changed that person’s mind, it wasn’t about the soundness of your argument, or the quality of your facts. It was likely about…
- the way that you approached the subject;
- the context in which you had the conversation (or conversations, if it took more than one); and
- the level of trust you shared with that person.
There’s no denying how bitterly divided our country has become. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation these days without getting wrapped up in a tangle of politically polarized threads. Here’s a hard truth:
We are living at a time when two people can share nearly everything—where they live, what they do, their interests, hobbies, religions and traditions—while still living in two totally different realities, each with its own set of “facts” to explain why things are the way they are.
And while we all try to convince ourselves that our views are rooted in sound logic, there’s no denying hard truth number two:
Most arguments aren’t based on facts, they’re based on feelings.
You know what actually changes people’s minds? The behavior (over time) of a person you like, respect and trust — specifically, their willingness to actually try to understand where you’re coming from.
“But why should I listen to someone when they clearly aren’t listening to me?”
Well, for one, that’s just what mature people do.
But more importantly, you have to…
- realize that the path from knowledge to understanding is a long one;
- realize that the path from understanding to wisdom is even longer; and
- accept that everybody is at a different point in their journey.
I’l give you a quick example. Imagine trying to convince a child asking for Christmas presents that he shouldn’t play with his favorite toy because it’s assembled by exploited kids in an east Asian sweatshop. Oh wait…
Okay, adults aren’t children. (Author’s note: I say that for the sake of a point I’m about to make, but I’m not sure that I actually believe it.)
Okay, adults aren’t children. But our most closely held beliefs—the ones that shape the way we view the world and live our lives—are almost always formed before adulthood.
Sure, we grow up and learn how to defend those beliefs with “logical” arguments. But that logic is, in many cases, just a thin layer of armor we use to protect our beliefs from challenge and scrutiny.
I feel the need to point something out here: instinctively defending deep-seated beliefs is totally reasonable behavior, and it’s probably a good thing that our brains are set up that way. Our fundamental beliefs are at the core of our self-image, and they often form the foundation of our moral compass. Without them, we would be rudderless, spineless, boring creatures.
The problem is that fundamental beliefs can be fundamentally flawed. And telling someone that their fundamental beliefs are fundamentally flawed usually leads to one of two outcomes (or, in many cases, both):
1. The person gets pissed at you:
2. They disengage from the conversation completely:
So, if you reeeally want to change somebody’s mind, you have to be willing to play the long game.
Stop trying to convince people of your way of thinking in one fell swoop. Stop lamenting the fact that other people can’t see what seems so obvious to you and try to understand why the things they believe seem so obvious to them. And more than anything, stop talking and start listening.
How to Listen…Like, Actually Listen — A Brief Guide
Step 1: Check your pride at the door.
This ain’t about you dawg! If your goal is truly to open up someone’s mind to a new way of thinking, you have to be willing to put all of your own thoughts and feelings to the side — at least temporarily.
Nobody is going to be totally honest with you if they’re worried about how you might react to what they have to say. Does this make you emotionally vulnerable? YES! And that’s kinda the point: your vulnerability is crucial if you want the other person to open up.
Step 2: Ask questions.
How are you going to change someone’s mind if you don’t understand why they think that way in the first place?
Dig, and constantly ask why — not in a condescending or patronizing way, but in a way that shows the person that you respect them and are genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say.
Step 3: Shut the f*** up and stop trying to debate. (Author’s note: I tend to suck at this one.)
Everybody wants to get their two cents in all the time, but the more you nitpick details, the further you get from root causes.
Whether by academic debate or cheesy courtroom dramas, we’ve been conditioned to listen solely for the purpose of identifying opportunities to contradict or rebut what someone is saying, as opposed to listening purely for the sake of understanding. To put it another way: when we talk to someone who thinks differently than we do, our number one instinct is to try to call bullshit every chance we get — even if it’s about inconsequential parts of the argument.
Your job is to tell that part of your brain to chill out for a bit. If the title of this piece didn’t make it clear enough, let me say this one more time: it’s not about being right, it’s about understanding how the other person thinks. Until you know that, you stand zero chance of getting them to consider alternate point of views.
Step 4: Don’t just listen to what a person says, listen to what they’re trying to say.
People are always telling you their story, in some way, shape or form.
The key here is reflection. Think deeply about what the person said and did during your interaction: the type of words they used, the concerns they revealed to you, their body language, the places where they hesitated or seemed unsure of themselves, the things they chose not to say…the list could go on.
When you engage in this kind of purposeful reflection you often pick up on things you totally missed during the actual interaction. Then, and only then, should you start to think about the best way to introduce an alternate viewpoint.
Let me be very clear: you can do all of these things flawlessly and still fail to change a person’s mind.
Real change takes time — months, years, even decades. Humans are stubborn, illogical creatures. We don’t change our minds because we hear one really good argument, we do it because we’re slowly introduced to a new way of thinking by people who we’ve grown to trust and respect.
Here’s the kicker: you might not even be the one who ultimately flips the switch that changes a person’s mind. However, you will have helped build the foundation that made their shift in thinking possible in the first place. And that, at the end of the day, is much more difficult, much more important, and much more admirable than proving someone wrong in the moment.
So, you wanna change people’s minds? Stop trying to be right all the time.