How to Change Someone’s Mind When It Matters

Have you ever needed to know how to change someone’s mind? Did you ever see a great opportunity (or problem) for your company-- and your boss or coworkers didn’t see it at all?

2 business people trying to persuade each other. Text-- 'Effective persuasion: psychology & examples, plus a workbook with vocabulary & examples of Persuasion at Work.'

Or you might be working on a critical danger like climate change that can only be avoided if people unite to take action.

How can you convince people who disagree with you to change their perspective?

When there is a clear solution to a problem and no one feels threatened, persuasion can be simple.

But so often prior experiences and emotions complicate human responses. Even with convincing evidence, you may find it hard—or nearly impossible—to change someone’s mind.

It’s important to understand the obstacles to persuasion and to be realistic about your chances. It’s still worth trying when the issue is important! Here are the best ways to convince people (based on evidence of what has worked.)

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Learning How to Change Someone's Mind

An excellent Forbes article points out that “the single most effective persuasion technique is also the easiest to master.” What is it?

Really listen to people before you begin to argue or explain. Learn their fears and dreams and what they want to see happen.

Then you can show them (if it’s true) how the change you’re proposing can help create that future they want to see. You'll be prepared to explain how it can help avoid what they (& you) fear could happen.

Don’t talk statistics at this point—paint a vivid picture of the ways things could be better. Facts and evidence matter. So does their trust that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re being honest with them. But it’s when that picture reaches their heart that change can happen.

The essentials of that process of persuasion have been clear for thousands of years. (Aristotle pointed out the need for all three parts of the process):

1. logic and evidence that your idea will work,

2. giving people a reason to trust your motives and that you know what you’re talking about, &

3. appealing to emotion—the desires, hopes, and fears that are the strongest human motivations.

The Neuroscience Behind Changing Someone's Mind

These ideas have been used effectively for centuries. However, neuroscientists have been learning more about why they work—the reasons our brain reacts as it does.

Their research suggests how to make your arguments even more effective. I found several fascinating articles, but I want to mention two on ‘framing’ in particular. “Frames” are mental categories our brains use to sort and make sense of our experiences.

A (long) article by Vox again emphasizes the importance of listening to the values of the “other” side. Using the arguments that convince us is rarely effective in convincing those who don’t already share our beliefs. Instead, we need to consider what matters to them. Then we can “frame” our arguments based on their perspective and values.

Vox discusses the results of a technique called “deep canvassing." It involves talking little but asking open-ended questions, then more questions. “In talking about their own lives, the voters engage in what psychologists call ‘active processing.’ The idea is that people learn lessons more durably when they come to the conclusion themselves…”

A Fast Company article explains the neuroscience of framing in detail. It gives some great examples of persuading people at work by reframing an argument to show how it helps reach their goals.

Start by understanding their concerns, then show your proposal meets them. “The point is to influence them by finding enough common ground to win them to your side…”

Examples of Effective Persuasion

There are so many possible examples of speeches that changed people's minds. I chose just a few, mostly from American history, but there are so many more!

Patrick Henry:

Patrick Henry gave one of the most famous speeches in American history to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. The convention was trying to decide what Virginia’s response to the intensifying conflict with Great Britain should be.

Henry believed that war was unavoidable. He argued that it was too late for reconciliation—Britain was intent on taking away their liberties. He also insisted that time was against them. The longer they waited to fight, the fewer resources they would have to fight with.

Although he backed his arguments with reasoning, Henry’s main appeal was emotional:

“The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery…

…There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged!”

... Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR):

Another example of effective persuasion was Franklin D. Roosevelt first “Fireside Chat,” on March 12, 1933. He had just declared a “banking holiday” to end a “run” on the banks, as people feared they would lose the little they had left in savings.

Roosevelt realized many people were panicking. They felt the institutions they had trusted were failing them. Events felt completely out of control. He invited them, in a sense, to sit at home with him, around his fire. He wanted them to feel he cared and that he had everything under control after all.

He managed to convince many that he and his advisors saw a way to resolve their problems. His advisers understood what had been happening in the banking system and were taking the necessary steps to restore it. All he asked ordinary people to do was to have confidence in their efforts.

His efforts to bring ordinary people into the picture worked. He explained what the government was doing and that their needs and worries weren’t forgotten. His reassurance reduced the panic and enabled the government to stabilize the situation.

I knew elderly people who still looked up to Roosevelt over 50 years later because they felt he had cared about them at that time of national crisis.

Roosevelt began his chat:

“My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking… I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be."

(After explaining the banking system in detail, FDR ended his chat like this:)

"After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work.

It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

A Few Others from Recent History

There have been other great persuasive speeches in recent history. Think about Churchill’s wartime eloquence, Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream speech, & even Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford graduation speech.

You might consider that speech more inspirational than persuasive. Still, Jobs was making a clear argument that people should follow their hearts and not “settle” for less or pursue other people’s expectations. (If you have had trouble understanding terms and idioms in that speech, I explain some of them here.)

Want to Change Someone's Mind? Your Words Matter!

Think of the power of the words in the examples above. Patrick Henry, FDR, Churchill, Martin Luther King, and others changed history with their words. Steve Jobs helped shape the thinking of a generation.

Choosing the best word for your purpose can make a significant difference in the way people respond to your suggestions. Check out the discussion of connotations on Why the Right Word Matters.

What if You Don’t Have a Large English Vocabulary to Choose From? 

There are a few 'power words' that are crucial for arguments, from persuading a colleague to convincing a client of the value of your service. They can persuade a family member to accept a friend or tolerate a decision you have made.

You probably know many or most of these words already, but you may not remember to use them when you speak.

I’ve made a workbook with examples of common ways to persuade a coworker, boss, or client to consider your idea. It also includes ways to argue against an idea you think would be harmful and ways to ask the opinions of others.

Many of the examples are incomplete 'sentence starters.' To get the most value from this workbook, copy the ones you might need and complete the sentences.

After the examples there are matching exercises (to practice meanings). Then there is a list of about 125 important word families (often a verb and related noun and adjectives) to use in these discussions. At the end of the workbook are links to videos to help you pronounce English vowels and some of the more difficult words.

If you’re interested in the workbook, complete the form below so I can send it to your email address. 

(From time to time I’ll also send you other content I believe you’d find useful. It won’t usually be more than two or three times a month, but you can unsubscribe at any time if you don’t find these ideas helpful.)

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