How to change a mind: yours and others'
How to change a mind: yours and others'
Listening for a Change creates openness — and safety — in order to surface and explore thoughts, feelings, and worldviews.
Why is it so hard to change people's minds? There are countless books and seminars that attempt to explain why — and then tell us how to be convincing, or how to mount an effective argument. But arguing is often not the best way to change minds, no matter what the technique.
Advice on influencing others generally focuses on enhancing our ability to convince. Formulas for making a compelling argument range from Aristotle's Rhetoric to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. While a skillful argument can be a productive approach to influence, there are times when even the most articulate advocacy falls on deaf ears — or worse, encourages and fortifies opposition. Consider, for example, a political campaign ad attacking a candidate you strongly support. Will it convince you to change your mind, or cause you to dig in your heels?
Two researchers in the areas of Psychology and Organizational Development provide important insight into the challenges of changing people's thinking: Chris Argyris and William Bridges.
From Chris Argyris' work in Overcoming Organizational Defenses, we learn that the way we see the world is the result of self-reinforcing patterns of thought that ultimately distort how we take in information. The information we pick out from the world seems to constantly strengthen what we already believe is true. Have you ever marveled at how often you seem to be right about things?
Once we form a belief, a thought process that Argyris calls "the reflexive loop" takes over. The reflexive loop acts like a valve: it lets in data which corroborates our beliefs, while shutting out data inconsistent with our preconceptions. The reflexive loop accelerates the hardening of our emerging beliefs into deeply held convictions that get incorporated into our worldview.
William Bridges, who has written extensively on people's reactions to change, notes that people don't experience "change" per se. Instead, people move through a psychological process he refers to as "transition." Transition, according to Bridges, starts with an ending, with a "letting go of something." What we generally take to be resistance, according to Bridges, is really an emotional reaction to confronting the possibility that something we count on is going away. The absence of the familiar makes change frightening, not the imagined new reality. Consider for a moment how much you depend on your worldview to help you make sense of what you encounter each day. Most of what comprises your worldview has been set since your childhood, and is responsible for who you are and how others see you. Some of your worldview came on board more recently. The more central your worldview is to your self image, the scarier it would be for you to acknowledge the possibility that, without modification, it no longer serves you. We learn from Bridges that it's hard to change someone's mind, because of the fear of losing an important mechanism for how one makes sense of the world.
Taking the research of Argyris and Bridges together, it's a miracle people ever change their minds about anything. On the one hand, the reflexive loop ensures that our experiences reinforce our beliefs. On the other hand, confronting the possibility that an aspect of our worldview no longer serves us means facing a fear of loss: the more central the belief, the more profound the loss.
Yet, we know that people can and do change their minds. If it's possible to alter our own thinking, it should be possible to alter the thinking of others. In fact, it turns out that substantive mind changing depends on a paradoxical supposition: we can influence someone's worldview only to the extent that our approach includes the possibility of altering our own worldview. Said another way, when our mind's made up, the minds we interact with don't change either.
How to be less convincing and more influential
Equating influence with the ability to convince limits your options by at least half. An alternative worth considering I'll call "Listening for a Change." If convincing means "to win over," then Listening for a Change means "to collaboratively explore." I characterize the difference by considering the intention or mission of the person seeking influence:
|Convincing to Change||Listening for a Change|
|I want you to understand and consider what I'm saying. I want you to adopt my point of view.||I want to explore options with you. I want to make it safe to reconsider deeply held convictions.|
Remember that we're focusing on influence when stakes are high for the person whose thinking we seek to alter. Garden variety persuasion in the form of compelling advocacy works great when we hope to influence someone who hasn't made up his mind, or for topics where we don't have much to lose if we change our minds.
Listening for a Change is a practice that, paradoxically, works best when we, the influencers, are also willing to suspend or set aside our own deeply held worldviews.
Listening for a Change includes a strategy, a set of skills, and a particular attitude. The strategy involves recognizing the opportunities to influence what we encounter daily. The skills include some standard interpersonal communication tools, plus one idea that may be brand new: "Bracketing." The attitude equates to a belief in collaboration and openness to helping improve things without necessarily getting our own way.
An attitude that supports Listening for a Change
When our mind is made up about what the individuals we want to influence need to hear, we lead with an advocacy of our position. When we begin to use persuasion or logical argument, we are tapping into their fear of losing a deeply-rooted belief that helps organize their operating systems. The response likely will be defensive, and probably will result in a frustrating point/counterpoint exchange.
But when we allow ourselves to be curious rather than certain, we create an opening for people to clarify their worldviews without feeling that those worldviews are at risk. This approach leads to authentic inquiry, not loaded questions. This creates a safe space for people to explore and examine the belief systems that drives their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, creating the possibility of change.
The skill of Listening for a Change
When we're out to convince, we want to find the most compelling way to state our point of view. Convincing relies on skillful advocacy. Listening for a Change, on the other hand, relies on skillful inquiry. Listening for a Change creates openness — and safety — in order to surface and explore thoughts, feelings, and worldviews.
Many of the inquiry skills required to successfully Listen for a Change have been covered adequately in numerous articles and training courses on communication. The table below lists the key inquiry tools and gives examples of how to use them.
|Reflect||Confirm understanding by repeating the person's exact words.||Individual: I don't think Jeff should have been promoted.
Influencer: So, you don't think Jeff should have been promoted.
|Paraphrase||Rephrase using your own words to confirm the person's meaning.||Individual: Jeff is grandiose and boastful, and that's not good behavior for a leader.
Influencer: So, what you're saying is that grandiose and boastful people shouldn't get promoted.
|Perception Check||Deepen your ability to support and empathize by checking out your belief about what the other person thinks or feels.||Individual: This is the worst news ever!
Influencer: It sounds like you're frustrated and upset, is that right?
|Open-ended Questions||Probe for further information by asking a question that requires more than a one-word answer.||"What do you think should have been done?"
"What are your ideas about this?"
|Body Language||Increase the comfort level of the speaker by using your body — eyes, torso, and arms — in a way that is congruent with your words.||
|Bracket||Internally acknowledge and set aside your own advocacy, argument, point of view, or judgment, and become curious about the other person's point of view.||Individual: This place stinks.
Influencer (to yourself): He is overreacting, and I'm going to listen to him and let him speak his mind.
"Bracketing" is the technique not generally covered elsewhere. To bracket means to recognize and set aside the initial thoughts and feelings that surface in response to something that somebody says or does. We can't stop our thoughts and feelings, but we can prevent them from influencing how we use the inquiry techniques listed in the table.
Bracketing allows us to exchange information, to focus on understanding, and to create safety for exploring thoughts and feelings.
It's one thing to define bracketing, it's quite another to know how to practice bracketing. It turns out that our attitude about influencing someone's thinking has everything to do with our ability to bracket our own thinking. If our attitude includes curiosity, bracketing will be easy. If our attitude includes a strong desire to be right or get our way, bracketing will be hard, and the strain of holding back our advocacy will be palpable.
The strategy of Listening for a Change
It's only when our worldviews get us into trouble that we have the ability to weigh the merits of holding onto them. That is the opportune moment to recognize, seize, and take full advantage of the opportunity to influence by taking these three steps:
- Recognize that circumstances have created dissonance between what someone believes should happen and what actually happens.
- Adopt the attitude that you're open to altering your own conclusions in the course of exploring the issue.
- Bracket your thoughts and feelings, replacing conviction with curiosity. Use listening techniques with an intention to create safety and openness. Then advocate your own point of view, knowing others now may be more willing to listen.
We've considered the anatomy of worldviews in an attempt to understand why minds rarely change. When an opportunity to influence someone's long standing beliefs presents itself, you'll need the right attitude and a set of listening skills in order to facilitate a change of mind. Everything written here about the worldviews of others applies to our own worldviews as well. When you're clear about the beliefs you hold and how they impact your understanding of the world, you'll be able to empathize with the challenges others face when confronting realities that don't add up for them.
Given the challenge of altering worldviews, it's highly unlikely that an article (which, by its very nature, doesn't allow for inquiry) will provide sufficient impetus to modify your underlying beliefs about how best to influence someone's thinking. What might work, on the other hand, would be a set of thoughts to augment or mitigate the ones you already have when you find yourself in a situation that calls for collaborative influence.
|If you're thinking...||Consider thinking...|
|I know what's really going on here.||I have a hypothesis, but I may be mistaken.|
|That's just like what happened to me; I think I should talk about my experience.||That sounds familiar; I can empathize with how it feels.|
|I have two or three great ideas for what needs to happen.||I have some ideas; I wonder whether they've already been considered.|
|Can't they see their own responsibility for this mess?||I wonder how they view their role in all of this.|
Keith Johnstone, teacher, author, and iconoclastic authority on improvisational theater, offers a keen insight about the attitude required to listen for a change. Johnstone, in Impro for Storytellers, writes, "We shouldn't tell actors to listen. It just confuses them and they don't know what to do. Rather, we should say, be altered by what's said." If you want to change a mind, listen with an intention to be changed by what you hear. When we Listen for a Change, openness to being altered by what's said becomes contagious.
Published on 01/07/07 05:09 PM