How (Not) To Change Someone’s Mind

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

~John Kenneth Galbraith

We live in a perpetual echo chamber. We follow the people we like and agree with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We read the news sites that have a similar worldview to ourselves. In the process, we trigger algorithms that curate our feeds, further reflecting our own views and biases back at us.

Consequently, our opinions aren’t being stress tested nearly as frequently as they should.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires. Our opinions are often based in emotion and group affiliation, not always facts.

I’ve recently finished reading Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by organisational psychologist Adam Grant. In a changing world, he says, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.

At the beginning of 2021 I committed to changing my mind on at least of couple of issues. So far I’ve changed my opinion on the benefits (or not) of lockdowns several times. I’ve shifted my position on climate change and also on universal basic income.

Most of us have a strong drive to hold on to pre-existing beliefs and convictions as it keeps us anchored. When your stance on controversial issues both cements your group identity and plants you in opposition to others, changing it can be a very difficult thing to do.

Like me you’ve probably seen a rise in the number of people in your social circles who are worrying about COVID vaccines. They probably aren’t anti-vaxxers, just a bit apprehensive or scared by the some of the negative stories circulating on social media.

Is it possible that the more the Government talks of the success of a vaccine programme, the more it pushes pro-vax messages or talks up ‘vaccine passports’ – that people become more entrenched in their views?

According to Adam Grant, almost definitely. In his book he outlines how from 2016 to 2018 measles spiked worldwide by 58%, with over 100,000 casualties despite a readily available vaccine.

In the U.S public officials have got tough on the problem with some warning that the unvaccinated can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail for up to six months. Schools have shut their doors to unvaccinated children and one county even banned them from enclosed public places. And yet, the problem persisted.

Surely educating the parents – pointing out that fears about vaccines were unfounded – would work? Not so, in fact introducing people to the research on vaccine safety backfired. They ended up seeing vaccines as riskier. Similarly, when people read accounts of the dangers of measles saw pictures of children suffering from it, or learned of an infant who nearly died from it, their interest in vaccination didn’t rise at all.

Why we resist facts

Presenting people with facts doesn’t always change their mind. Sometimes they harden our views. In experiments, researchers have presented statements to two kinds of people – those who believe that climate change is real and those who are deniers. They found that for both groups, when the statement confirmed what they already thought, this strengthened their beliefs. But when it challenged their views, they ignored it. This is because of a powerful phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker put it this way, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.”

The way to change people’s mind isn’t to present them with facts , or even to talk at them, it’s about listening to them. As Adam writes in his book “listening is a way of offering others our scarcest and most precious gift: attention.”

It’s through effective listening that the vaccine whisperers of Quebec did change people’s minds. Here, doctors are utilising a new approach to help sway these parents who are hesitant in getting their infants vaccinated. They are speaking to those who have “vaccine hesitancy.” The counselors go in depth with new parents by listening to their concerns and why they’re hesitant, as well as their fears. This isn’t about telling people what to do or think but to helping them find their own motivation to change. The counselors maintain an open conversation with the parents. They address all the parents’ concerns before there’s even a thought about making a vaccination appointment. New parents then have plenty of time to weigh up their options. This isn’t about coerciation or bullying, it’s more about exploring their hesitancy and giving them the motivation and space to make a decision. The right kind of listening encourages people to change.

People who are overweight , smoke or drink too much or do drugs know it’s bad for them. The last thing they need are facts, especially when they may have some alternative facts of their own.

Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe, and that’s why it’s so difficult to do.

All of us would benefit from changing our mind more often – but we are unlikely to do it if the end result is loneliness.

Being welcoming of other views, actually seeking out dissent and disagreement and having our ideas and thoughts challenged would lead to a happier and more productive world.

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

4 thoughts on “How (Not) To Change Someone’s Mind

  1. Hi Paul, your post reminds me of the motivational interviewing approach much used with people who have addiction problems. MI is based on the premise that if we try to persuade people that something is wrong for them, we just give them the chance to argue that this isn’t the case (that they don’t really have a problem and could change any time). Rehearsing arguments tends to strengthen them. MI lets people talk about their alcohol or drug use, acknowledges that there are upsides as well as down and lets people explore their own feelings around their use. Very often, people will volunteer their own fears and concerns about their behaviour when listened to and when they get their opinions respected and valued. All the best. Russell

    1. Very much so Russell, my understanding is that the approaches in the maternity wards in Quebec were grounded in MI techniques. I agree with you that the approach can be used in a range of scenarios – in housing it applies to people who get into cyclical debt, there’s usually an underlying cause that you’ll never uncover by giving people warnings and telling them their home is at risk. It’s a shame though when we know this that so much of policy across the social sectors including health and justice are founded in a system of telling people off, fining them or jailing them.

  2. Great reflects Paul, thanks. I am half way through Adam Grant’s book and it’s giving me real food for thought. Reflecting on it so far, the question that keeps arising for me is how can I practice and welcome discomfort as part of my practice more often and create the right environment for others to do so too. It would be great to hear your thought on this.

    1. Thanks Lisa – spoiler alert: Adam shares a lot of tips for that at the end of the book. When I was studying innovation techniques at a number of companies I found that the most successful organisations or approaches had built just enough friction, regular intense debates, into their process. We tried to emulate it by skilling up as better facilitators so we could open up safe spaces – or labs – that were psychologically safe and people felt protected. I think disagreements are hard when you think of them as personal, but conflicts at work usually start as differences over objectives or process. We try and think about the business needs and depersonalise it: why is your difference of opinion an important debate to have?

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