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Passion, People and Principles

Changing People’s Minds

post # 273 — January 2, 2007 — a General post

We all want to know how to change the thinking of our boss, our colleagues, our subordinates, our clients. But it’s very hard to do. After all,

“He who’s convinced against his will,

Is of the same opinion still.”

(I remember this couplet from college days, but I don’t remember who wrote it.)

My experience has been that those who seem to like my work most tend to be people who already share my underlying assumptions (about professionalism, people and passion, to name only three things.) Those who do NOT share my assumptions do not seem to appreciate my work, and neither read my work nor hire me for consulting or seminars. I tend not to have the chance to engage in debates with those I would most like to reach – those who do not share my world view and might benefit from considering it. And, of course, vice versa.

The same “talking to ourselves” pheneomenon tends to be true in many fields. It’s not the left-wingers listening to right-wing radio broadcasts, and if they do, I doubt their views are changed by it. And Congressional and parliamentary debates are all posturing and rhetoric, rather than exercises in reasoning. The opposing parties don’t REALLY listen to the arguments of the other side, do they?Even trials often (mostly?) turn on the predispositions of the jury members – hence the thriving business of selling jury selection advice.

If we’re not REALLY engeged in discourse, what difference does ANY writer, speaker or consultant achieve? Do we all just preach to the already converted?

Ian Welsh, a prominent political blogger (he’s managing director of www.agonist.org) points out that even if you write for those who fundamentally agree with you, one serves a useful purpose by helping people clarify their reasoning and giving them the ammunition to debate and prevail in the discussions THEY need to have.

Is that what we writers, speakers and consultants do? Is that ALL we can do? Or can we truly convert people to different ways of seeing and understanding things than they started off with? If so, how?


Justin Evans said:

While I completely agree with Ian’s point, I also feel like there is a further thought to add to it— I think beyond helping your intellectual allies with clarifying their thinking, the kind of writing/work someone like you does also provides people with both reference and rallying positions. For example, I remember finding a couple of “valued” thinkers while I was in University that I could use to legitimize some of the more contentious ideas I was trying to work with. Reading and citing them not only gave my work credibility in a hostile intellectual environment, they also gave me the courage to continue on the path I was on.

As for your questions:

Is that ALL we can do? Or can we truly convert people to different ways of seeing and understanding things than they started off with? If so, how?

I think Barak Obama is a very interesting case in point. He has a very particular skill set that provides some interesting answers to these questions. He has chosen a very conciliatory way of talking, and debating with those that have very conflicting opinions to him. I don’t know if you’ve seen him debate, but he has a remarkable rhetorical skill set… His major strategy (one which I think is extremely useful in converting people) is to find the common ground and goals he has with his enemies positions, strongly validate a lot of his opponents thinking, and then slowly and very delicately peel away at (what he would consider) the problems therein.

It works, too. A recent poll I saw said more committed republicans would vote for Obama than any other potential candidate the Democrats could field for the next presidential race.

So maybe the answer to your question is a strong sense of diplomacy and a deep understanding of classical rhetoric.

posted on January 2, 2007

Jim said:

By coincidence, a colleague and I had a conversation this morning about the WSJ, both observing that we are religious readers despite not aligning with the WSJ’s opinions. I find that the overall credibility of the information presented by the paper makes me open to also exploring the opinions there. Although rarely swayed, I find that, inverted from Ian Welsh’s observation, reading these fundamentally opposing opinions helps clarify my own thinking. Should “changing people’s minds” be a measure rather than a mission? If my principles are sound, and my credibility is known, and my opinions are well formed, I expect I’d find the delight of people listening, at least, and then enjoying the periodic surprise of agreement from someone of a formerly different mind.

posted on January 2, 2007

Steve Portigal said:

This is a great question, perhaps the central question of consulting…do we have impact, and if so, what kind of impact do we have (versus what we think we have, or what is expected to happen)?

One thing is the “learning-ready moment” – I’m no expert in how to consistently create them, but we’ve all observed them and seen that harmonic reaction when things are lined up. When you see someone else get it. When they are able to listen and hear and be influenced and process.

I think it takes several passes to carry new ideas through. And giving people opportunities to own and restate the ideas themselves; explain them to others.

Often I feel we don’t give them new ideas but (as you describing) give our clients structure and organization and priorities and evidence.

And a hook. A clear way of describing something that can be retold. A story.

Are we changing minds or organizing ideas or giving ammo? At some point those all overlap?

posted on January 2, 2007

Heidi Tryon said:

Why worry about whether or not you change others’ minds? It is enough to simply write or say what you believe is important. Trust that those who are ready will receive your message and benefit from it.

posted on January 2, 2007

Rich Saletan said:

David… here is a question to ponder.. perhaps you can share your experiences. How does a personal services company/consulting company of small to medium size continue after its founders and key management people “retire.” Sustainability of the “Brand” is what I am talking about. Seems to me that only larger entities have been able to make this transition.

Your thoughts?


posted on January 2, 2007

ann michael said:

David –

Can you (I) be “converted”?

By definition if we can be converted about anything at all, then there are people out there that also can (given we’re not all THAT unique!).

I also completely agree with Steve. We need to be ready to learn and we usually need to hear something several times if it’s extremely counter to our views.

In one of my previous jobs I decided that it took most organizations that I had seen 2-years to learn and embrace a concept.

I worked with a CEO once who was disturbed that it had taken 5 attempts to finally implement a strategy he wanted to follow. In looking at this more deeply, I realized that each previous group had helped prepare the way and was a stepping stone to the next. Could it have been done more efficiently – sure! But, each one contributed to the ultimate understanding and successful adoption of the approach.

Sometimes change takes time!


posted on January 2, 2007

peter vajda said:

I would underscore Heidi’s point. For years, folks told me I couldn’t bring my type of training, personal development work, coaching etc. into the corporate environment as it focused on the “soft” side of things. Their mantra, “You can’t do THAT with THEM”! At first, insecure, I believed their critiques, and found myself uncomfortably and unconsciously trying to fit my self and my work into their “boxes”, joining their “choir.” I did my work in the corporate arena but , basically, hating what I was doing, hating me for doing it and hating how I was doing it….moving through hoops at the expense of my integrity and self-responsility.

I spent a fair amount of time in self-reflection, looking at what was true and real for me, my insecurity, and made a huge decision to ” do it my way.” Over the years I trusted my process and my truth about what I was doing and how I was doing it and trusting there was an audience for my work. Clients appear. Audiences appear. Too, many potential clients put their hands up and react: “No thanks, you’re not for us.” Both scenarios are win-win.

Folks listen, learn and integrate material when they’re ready. The experiences that bring them to a state of readiness, willingness to listen, engaging with a beginner’s mind, etc. are myriad: crises of some sort, fear, being naturally secure in their own skin so they are open and willing to entertain new ideas, thoughts, and ways of being and doing, etc.

What I focus on as well in my work is the resistance element, summed up in my question, “What’s right about not (fill in the blank, e.g., hearing new ideas, paradigms, perspectives, approaches, etc.?”)

Responses to the question are telling and point to folks’ basic fears and insecurities, feelings of lack and deficiency, etc., vis-a-vis change. The “devil I know vs. the devil I don’t ” (that is, don’t expect me to focus on “me” and my resistance to s/thing new or different) “, for me, is a huge underlying excuse (not reason) and root cause for resistace, for wanting and needing to be in the same choir (the one we preach to) day after day, month after month, year after year as opposed to chance moving into a new choir and listening for a few notes with an open mind.

I truly believe, build it (with due diligence, integrity, honesty, sincerity and self-tresponsibility) and they will come. Trust your process. Potential clients and organizations who said “What, are you kidding me?!” months and years back are now actual clients. As Ann, above, says, change takes time…….and patience and trust in your self and your work, given you’ve done your homework on your work and on your self. I’ve learned The Universe takes care of the rest….at least in my case….

Happy New Year!

posted on January 2, 2007

James Bullock said:

You can’t change other people’s minds. You can offer them the opportunity to change their own minds, if they want to, and help with changing their minds, if they want that, too. Whether you manage to help or not is ultimately determined by what happens, and by their opinion of it.

Sorry it’s not a couplet. But, I know where that quote came from. I came up with it to describe what consultants do sometimes and the limitations of who you can reach. That’s regardless of the power of your ideas, or your infatuation with them. I use it mostly to remind myself, to keep myself in check. Sometimes it works.

posted on January 2, 2007

Lisa Guinn said:

The original quote is a bit different:

“He that complies against his will

Is of his own opinion still.”

— Samuel Butler (1612-1680) in

Hudibras, Part iii, Canto iii, Line 547

I found it in Bartlett’s Quotations online.

posted on January 2, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Lisa, for the correct quote. I guess I shouldn’t have been so lazy as to not check it out myself, but with such good friends here, I KNEW someone would be either enrgetic or erudite enough to find it.

Justin, I think you are spot on with the observation that there are good ways to downplay differences, engage one’s debating “colleagues” and create true conversations designed to influence, not just prevail. (I haven’t listened to Obama, so I have to take your word that he is a good example.)

Getting people to engage, keeping them engaging and creating true dialogues is a scarce art nowadays. Most people (perhaps even me too frequently) find it all too easy to lapse into argumentation (those awful OTHER guys who keep getting things wrong.)

I llike Jim’s point about the WSJ, but would extend it. I subscribe to both the WSJ and the NYT and find it amusing (if not always so instructive) to contrast their predictable (and opposite) “takes” on various issues of the day. I have often thought that more good would come from publishing the WSJ editorials in the NYT and the NYT editorials in the WSJ so that everyone could be doing what Jim and his friend does – listen to the other side’s point of view with an open mind.

I find it hard to take Heidi and Peter’s detached point of view (Don’t worry what other people think of what you do.) While I believe in intellectual integrity and staying true to your vision, I don’t write, speak or consult just for the fun of it or to articulate a message. Whether or not I’m making a difference matters a lot, and learning how to engage others more (and better) in the dialogue is a crucial skill that I would like to keep improving.

And yes, as Steve and Ann point out, part of that is learning not to swing for the fences and win every point or every argument – we’re back to Justin’s point: the skills of influencing those that DON’T start off agreeing with you include patience and creating common cause, not opposition from the git-go.

I wish I had known that better when I was just starting out! (And had the self-control to do it that way today!)

posted on January 2, 2007

Ian Welsh said:

I should perhaps mention that I agree with David – I write to make a difference and if I didn’t think I was making a difference, I’d stop. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time which could be used other ways.

I do think that you can chance people’s minds, but I think it’s a slow process that requires repeated passes and exposure both to ideas and to their efficacy. (As a political blogger, for example, I predicted the general outcomee of the Iraq war, Israel’s loss to Hezbollah, the course of the Afghani occupation, the collapse of the housing bubble, the rise of the price of oil (I’ve also gotten some important things wrong, like the outcome of the 2004 Presidential election.))

Over time, seeing that I have a decent predictive and explanatory record has changed some readers minds. Not a lot, but I do occasionally get feedback that indicates a change has occured.

But the larger part is what David discusses – which is to say, giving people the backup they need to be confident in what they believe already. People who generally feel that, say, universal healthcare is a good idea, that a minimum wage increase won’t harm the economy, that something needs to be done about the energy situation and so on that there is an intellectual argument behind them – that there are people like me and others who have the facts; the arguments; the theories that give weight to their beliefs.

Knowing they have that behind them helps give them the confidence to pursue those ideals or goals.

The same thing can be said of business writing – there are a lot of business theories and if you believe in one of them, knowing that there are strong arguments behind them helps give you the convinction to pursue those strategies within your own company and with your customers, especially in the face of strong opposition.

Much as we all believe that we would stand alone in our beliefs, even if no one else agreed, knowing that others agree, who have thought extensively on the issues, is a big comfort and a source of strength.

And that’s something you can do for your readers – give them that comfort; show them the arguments for the positions you hold and the facts that support those arguments.

posted on January 2, 2007

david foster said:

David, here is a very interesting discussion on opinion change. It started discussing change in a political context, but evolved to a broader scope.

posted on January 5, 2007