How to change someone’s mind

Image source: Shutterstock

You are about to debate an important issue with a colleague with whom you have a differing perspective. You have developed a strong case to support your viewpoint and it’s backed up by hard, irrefutable data. Even though you’re confident that your argument is watertight, you fail miserably to sway your opponent to your way of thinking.

You have just learned an invaluable lesson – you can’t change a person’s beliefs with facts and figures alone. How you present your case is just as important. Science has proven that evidence and logic don’t win arguments. The ability to persuade others to change their minds requires a mix of communication skills, empathy, and respect.

Our opinions are often based on emotion. Humans have an innate tendency to hold on to pre-existing beliefs and convictions as our brains are wired to ensure the integrity of our worldview. Consequently, we seek out information that confirms what we already know (confirmation bias) and dismiss facts that are contrary to our core beliefs (the backfire effect).

So, berating another because they don’t like our ideas, recommendations, or proposals is a recipe for disaster. If you want someone to see eye-to-eye with you, then – in the words of one writer – you need to remember that:

When persuading someone to change their mind on a major topic, what’s being said isn’t always quite as important as how it’s said. If a person feels attacked or disrespected or condescended to, they’ll turn off their brain and block out the most rational, correct arguments on principle alone. Homo sapiens are odd, emotional creatures, more amenable to a convincing pitch than poorly presented rightness. It’s why we vote for the guy we’d gladly have as a drinking buddy over the somewhat alienating candidates with a firmer grasp on the issues.

Productive exchanges between people are more likely to occur when there’s mutual respect. Discussions, therefore, need to be held in an environment where no one is disparaged or shamed and both sides are open to changing their minds. In short, there must be a goal shift from winning to understanding and this requires empathy.

The late Stephen Covey wrote about the importance of empathy in his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 5 – seek first to understand, then to be understood – encourages us to alter the way we listen to others. To change someone’s mind you need to address their emotional attachment to what they believe and this, Dr Covey argued, requires emphatic listening.

According to Covey, people “listen with the intent to reply, not to understand”. Most of us are so focussed on our own agenda we don’t hear the other person as we talk at or over them. In contrast, empathic listening helps us get inside another person’s frame of reference with the intent of truly understanding how they see the world. Covey writes:

When another person speaks, we’re usually “listening” at one of four levels. We may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all. We may practice pretending. “Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.” We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain parts of the conversation. … Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said. But very few of us ever practice the fifth level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening.

We spend years learning to read, write, and speak but receive scant training in the art of listening. Just think of all the times that you have debated or argued with someone. Did preaching to them about right and wrong change their mind? Did acting like a “logic bully” cause them to see the light? Did accusing them of being closed-minded or unreasonable help your cause?

I’ll bet that in each of these circumstances you faced the same outcome – a stalemate. Why? Because we all want to be understood, valued, and affirmed and this requires empathic listening. So, to change someone’s mind, we must stop talking and start listening. Listening is the key pathway to changing someone’s thinking and until your conversation partner feels heard, it’s almost impossible to change their mind.

Empathic listening is your secret weapon to influencing others and ensuring that you don’t butt heads. A columnist for the on-line publishing platform, Medium, put it this way:

When you come in guns blazing with all of your clear evidence, the other person will lock up. They’ll feel bullied and incapable of hearing you out. The best arguers are proven to use a small number of key points. They don’t rapid-fire or clap in the person’s face while they talk. They ask questions. They know changing someone’s mind is damn-near impossible. By asking questions, that person will change their own mind.

Great arguers stay calm, kind, and empathetic — no matter how ignorant or stupid their target is. They often open by acknowledging the things they agree on. Quite often, they compliment their opponent in the first minute. Opening soft is disarming. It’s unexpected. It highlights a desire for consensus rather than war and condescension.

Communications consultant and author, Lauren Schieffer, urges us to “get to know the person you are trying to influence. What matters to them? What brings them joy? What makes them angry? Understanding even a little bit about them helps you walk in their shoes with empathy”. You can then frame your message around the values of the other person, not your own.

In combination with empathic listening, another communication tool that you should consciously utilise is body language. Your non-verbal behaviours – facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voice – send very clear messages which can be deciphered easily. If you roll your eyes or stamp your feet, for example, it’s blindingly clear that you’re not happy.

Your actions and mannerisms can speak louder than words, so remember that a genuine smile or tilt of the head will aid effective communication. Of course, it’s impossible to read body language and gauge sentiment if you are not communicating face-to-face. So, don’t try to resolve important matters via emails or messaging apps.

■      ■      ■

In my recent post, Has the world gone mad?, I mentioned that science deniers – whether on vaccines, climate, or evolution – cherry-pick evidence and draw on flawed reasoning techniques. Still, we should not give up on them even though their detachment from veritable reality is incomprehensible to science believers.

According to Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at Boston University, the only possible way to change the mind of science deniers is to talk to them calmly and respectfully, In his book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, McIntyre acknowledges that the truth is under assault with feelings outweighing evidence.

Even so, he believes that for most science deniers, change is possible and that if we don’t try, things will only get worse. McIntyre states:

Science denial is not just about doubt, it’s about distrust. The way you overcome distrust is not through sharing accurate information, it’s through conversation, face to face, in which you’re calm and patient and show respect and listen. Having the right attitude is the only thing that gives hope of success.

The world is undeniably polarised and our sense of shared reality is under attack. Denialism is dangerous and unfathomable, but one thing is clear:

“The ability to hear is a gift. The willingness to listen is a choice.”Mike Greene


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

4 Replies to “How to change someone’s mind”

  1. Brilliant research providing an abundance of information. Developing the skill of empathetic listening would be most valuable for all of us . Thank you for all your hard work.

  2. Thank you again, Paul.

    I’ve just started in a new role at work and a new relationship at the same time.

    I can honestly say that the most important change which has drastically affected both, particularly the new relationship, is my ability to really listen and empathise.

    If only my ex wife could hear me now!

    Well done Paul.

  3. Hi Paul,

    Why couldn’t I have met you 20 years ago, so as to receive,
    learn from, and enjoy such wonderfully informative blogs?

    Thank you yet again for another sage contribution.

    Your blogs are the complete opposite to fake news!!

  4. Hello Paul,

    This Blog has got to be one of the best you have ever written!

    Social Psychology is such an enigmatic discipline, and you clarified your topic very clearly.

    A Bite-Size publication would now have to be in the offing:
    ‘Key Behavioural Traits to succeed in your Personal and Business life’.

    We certainly cannot go past The 7 Habits….I am still amazed by it.

    I now have the mnemonic IPSAE to remember Covey’s five types of listening in Habit 5. It will undoubtedly take effort to develop empathy!

    Thank you for all the tips.



Comments are closed.