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Alex Lickerman M.D.

Getting People To Change Their Minds

So much better than resorting to violence

Changing another person's mind is literally one of the hardest things to do in the world. Think of how many conversations you've ever had in which one of the participants decided the other was right and abandoned their previous views altogether. It almost never happens.

Why? Because even though ideas flit in and out of our heads like mosquitoes, ideas that are believed cling with electromagnetic power. Once we believe an idea we develop an emotional connection to it, not to mention a commitment to it—as if to a person—and often become attached to it with a strength we often don't realize has little to do with the merit of the belief itself. And once we're attached to anything—whether a person, place, thing, or idea—giving it up is extremely hard. We will always grieve over a loss, no matter how small.


Despite the difficulty of changing another person's mind, sometimes it really is necessary to try. Sometimes an idea to which we find a person attached poses a genuine risk to others (believing, for example, Jews, blacks, Muslims, non-Muslims, Americans, or any other collection of individuals who share similar traits are in some way inferior to everyone else, abstracting them into something less than human and giving everyone else the right to treat them with anything other than loving compassion and kindness). Even when the stakes are less dramatic, the effort required is often worth it.

So how can we succeed in changing another person's mind when so much psychology is in play to thwart our efforts? The following strategies may be a reasonable place to start (though are obviously by no means guaranteed):

  1. When introducing a new idea to someone, try to make them think it was theirs. Though not easily done, people are far more likely to believe something is true if they discover it for themselves. Sometimes the Socratic method works well here, but only if you ask questions in a way that communicates you're genuinely interested in another person's views rather than in leading them where you want them to go.
  2. Help others let go of erroneous belief without losing face. The notion that being wrong connotes inferior intelligence is a powerful inducement for many to cling to positions they themselves may no longer strongly believe. Sometimes it may be useful to put forth the idea that the frequency with which a person is correct and their value as a human being are two entirely separate things.
  3. Explore the underlying experience(s) that may be contributing to another person's erroneous belief. The emotional connection we feel to our beliefs is often powered more by the experiences that produced them than by the correctness of the beliefs themselves. Exploring relevant formative events in a person's life may not only give you insight into why they believe as they do but them as well. If a belief seems to have evolved from faulty reasoning in response to such an event (a female teacher repeatedly berates and humiliates a boy for talking in class who then grows up believing women are controlling in general), the Socratic method may work well again for helping identify where the reasoning that led to the belief went wrong.
  4. Focus more on underlying assumptions. People usually disagree on first principles, not on the reasoning that follows from them. Seek whatever common ground may exist between your assumptions and the assumptions of others and explore the reasons for the differences from there. If no common ground exists (which is hard to believe—even pro-choice and pro-life advocates tend to agree abortions aren't actually desirable) go back to #3 and see if there's any room for change.
  5. Concede minor points that makes sense to concede. This will show others you're willing to be proven wrong. Role modeling that behavior will help them feel it's okay to be wrong, too, and help you with #2.
  6. Become a trusted mentor.   Many of us have someone in our lives to whom we turn in times of trouble, someone whose judgment we trust, to whom our hearts are more receptive than anyone else, and to whom we'll listen with a genuinely open mind. Become that person to as many people as you can. If you can, the power of the aforementioned techniques will be multiplied a thousand-fold. It only requires you to become wise and caring. Easy, right?


Of course, the foregoing has all been predicated on the assumption that in any given disagreement your idea is the correct one. But if you always and only focus on changing the minds of others and never on your own, you'll find yourself more often than not talking at others rather than with them (and they with you, each of you pausing while the other speaks not so much to listen but to think about what they want to say next), championing ideas rather than exchanging them, and learning nothing. So before you go using any of these techniques on someone else, use them first on yourself.

Try to listen to others as if you hadn't yet decided what you think about the subject under discussion, even if you have. Remove, at least temporarily, your attachment to your own ideas. Give the ideas of others a fair, unbiased hearing, as much as you're able. Notice which arguments cause you to react most negatively and rather than actually reacting negatively ask yourself what's causing your reaction (no easy feat, certainly). What experiences may you have reasoned from poorly to arrive at your beliefs?

If you try as hard as you can to embrace someone else's belief but simply can't become attached to it because you find it inferior by every measure on which you rely, and further your interest in changing their thinking stems from compassion (either to relieve them of suffering or prevent others from suffering at their hands) and not the common desire we all share to have everyone else in the world think exactly as we do—then approach the task of changing their thinking humbly, never allowing yourself to denigrate anyone because they won't listen to your reason. And always remember—especially when you fail—though many beliefs are genuinely dangerous, there's far more room for differences of opinion than we commonly believe.


If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.


About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.