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If You Want to Convince Someone, Start by Mapping Their Mind

First, understand what they think and what they value. Then argue.

Key points

  • We fail to convince because we argue based on our own perspectives and values.
  • Successful persuasion should be preceded by mapping the other's mind.
  • Arguments have impact only when they are built on the perspectives and values of the other.

Did you fail (again) to convince your teenager to put her phone away and read a book? A colleague from tech support to prioritize your ticket? Your boss to increase your salary? Why do we constantly fail to persuade when our arguments are perfectly sound? It feels like we’re arguing against brick walls.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

Could it be that we’re doing it all wrong? Could we do better? I believe so. We can be more persuasive with others by focusing on three simple aspects: mapping their mind (the topic of this article), starting with the no, and creating a second voice in the other’s head (stay tuned).

What do I mean by mapping the mind of the one we talk to? Let’s take the case of the teenager who cannot be persuaded to read. You, the parent, have a complex perspective on what reading a book means. Picture this perspective, this cognitive schema, like an intricate puzzle, made of pieces like these: you know that books are important for building both knowledge and character; you know that reading good books early in life leads to rewarding conversations and solid friendships later on; you know that getting lost in a good book is the best way to spend an afternoon at the beach; you know that a serendipitous encounter with a certain book when you were 16 changed the course of your life. These pieces fit together well and create a coherent puzzle in your head, titled Reading Is Good for You.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

As you attempt to convince your kid to stop wasting time on TikTok and read a book instead, you choose from your puzzle a piece which, to you, makes perfect sense and try to plant it into her head, disguised as an argument. Obviously, it doesn’t fit. What do we reflexively do next? We keep pushing to no avail. As we preach, we watch with desperation her eyes rolling and her fingers scrolling.

We fail to persuade because we ignore that the other has a completely different perspective, a different puzzle. To persuade, we first need to map the puzzle that exists in her head, and that’s not easy. Then, we need to craft brand new arguments to fit into that puzzle (this is even more complicated). So, how do we do that?

1. Map what the other thinks. A 2017 study by Chopik and colleagues measures and ranks nations on different kinds of empathy, including cognitive empathy—the capacity to understand what others think. Some people are more empathetic than others, some nations are more empathetic than others. What if you find that you belong to a less empathetic culture? Can you train this skill?

How can you improve your cognitive empathy, your mapping of the other’s puzzle? The best technique is to ask. Inquire about the other person’s perspective, but make sure you use the right voice. Psychologist Adam Grant’s classification of attitudes towards a matter can apply here: we can use a prosecutor’s voice, a preacher’s voice, a politician’s voice, or a scientific reporter’s voice. Asking your daughter like a prosecutor: “Why do you waste your life with that TikTok nonsense instead of reading?” will yield nothing valuable. Same with a preacher’s voice: “Did you know that scrolling only gives you short-term gratification?” A pleasing politician’s voice is equally unproductive.

The only solid way to map her puzzle is to ask like a scientific reporter who needs to write an article on teens. Ask her, over some hot chocolate, about what interests her and her friends, how they spend their time, what they talk about, what they think about books, and what they learn from TikTok. I don’t know your daughter, but you might find out that, in her view, books are incredibly slow, TikTok offers great insights, and whatever mom or dad recommends is automatically labeled as uncool (sorry!). You know that you correctly mapped her perspective when you repeat what you found back to her, and she says, “Wow! You finally understand me!”

2. Map what the other believes in. Understanding what is important to others and accepting that our values and priorities may differ profoundly is a sign of wisdom. It also helps with persuasion. Research done by Jonathan Haidt shows that well-intended people who build their beliefs on different moral values fail to communicate and, instead, talk past each other. The same mechanism applies beyond moral values, in our own failed persuasion attempts.

Why does, for instance, my well-crafted argument, “Books are worth reading because they help you grow,” fall on deaf ears? Most probably because, at her age, my daughter cares less about her personal growth than I do. Perhaps she cares much more about fitting in, socially. Understanding what she values is crucial to persuading her.

3. Craft arguments to fit their puzzle. Those we need to convince—the daughter, the colleague, the boss—are immune to our valid argument because, until now, we argued based on how we view the situation and on what we value. Unless we map their puzzle—what they think and what they believe in—and craft completely new arguments that fit that puzzle, our arguments will just function as venting devices.

If you build on what’s cool for a teenager, if you make TikTok your ally, if you play on her need to fit in with her friends, and if you, somehow, link all these with reading, she might be persuaded. Eventually. I didn’t say it was easy.


Chopik, W. J., O’Brien, E., & Konrath, S. H. (2017). Differences in Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking Across 63 Countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(1), 23-38.

Grant, A. (2021). Think again: The power of knowing what you don't know. Viking, Penguin Random House.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (First). Pantheon Books.

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