How to Change Someone’s Mind: Advice for a Dividing World


Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Persuasion happens every day at every level.

We attempt to persuade colleagues at work; partners at home; family members and friends in our daily conversations. We seek to influence the ideas and behavior of the people close to us.

Yet persuasion extends beyond our proximate circle of relationships. We are each embedded within companies, social and political organizations, countries, and allied nations that also seek to change the ideas and behavior of those who are not aligned with us.

Persuasion is ubiquitous and essential to the continued growth of any relationship, micro or macro. Persuasion creates self-correction within in a system in that eventually, the parts will figure out the best way to serve the whole; over time, what doesn’t work is discarded, while what works is retained. Persuasion helps humanity in its quest towards truth (which perhaps does not have a final destination).

Persuasion in the Collective

Persuasion efforts are pretty ugly in the world right now. From a collective standpoint, the efficacy of persuasion — for example, from one political group to another, or one country to another — are not only showing to be ineffective, but outright counterproductive; polarization and division continues to swell, despite this or that party or group’s efforts to change the other.

Our efforts to persuade are ineffective because we are using the completely wrong tactics.

What is poor persuasion?

Here is poor persuasion in a nutshell: Tell somebody how they should think and act. Tell them whatever they believe is wrong... seriously wrong. Then try to control them into doing what you think is right.

Resistance is Hardwired

We don’t like being told what to do or think. Think about how you felt when your parents told you do something as a kid.

Exhibit A (I love this video for is simplicity and absolute power to drive home this point):

We never grow up the way we are told we should. We still don’t like it when people tell us what to do: bosses, politicians, governments, friends, family… I will decide what I believe and how to act, thank you very much.

If you want to change someone’s mind, do this instead: Listen. Don’t try so hard to change their mind. Aim first to understand, and second (if at all) to persuade. Show empathy. Build a sense of trust.

Creating Space for Change

Therapists know very well from experience that people don’t change their behavior because they feel judged, shamed, embarrassed, or pushed into change. People change when they feel seen, heard, and accepted — when they are met exactly where they are.

To change someone’s mind and behavior, it is best to let them take the journey themselves. People don’t change because somebody else wants them to. If they do, the change is usually not sustainable. People make lasting change if and when they are ready to do so on their own.

To allow this to happen, we have to meet people with acceptance and compassion — no matter what.

The same is true on a collective level.

If the social and political Left wants to convince the Right about more humane and expansive immigration policies, for example, they won’t get very far by using the tactics of shame, blame, and control (e.g., calling Republicans racist, unilaterally imposing policies). The reverse is also true: if the Right wants to convince the Left to responsibly curb immigration, they won’t get far using these familiar tactics (e.g., calling Democrats crazy or unilaterally imposing their own policies).

Shame, blame, and control are counterproductive strategies that produce an equal and opposite force; instead of luring people closer to the position one desires, it pushes people further away. This is how extremes develop. “Open The Borders!” “Build That Wall!”

Shame, blame, and control are instinctual strategies. They are easy and intoxicating but not enlightened. They create backlash and polarization.

There must be a better way.

Why Listening Works

To listen and show compassion to one’s “enemy” — a person, a political group, or a nation — is counterintuitive. Wouldn’t that just embolden them and validate their ideas and behavior?

Listening and empathy are more than virtues; they are tactical persuasion tools.

Behavioral science shows that listening is foundational to building trust, and trust is foundational for persuasion to occur.

When people feel heard — when you create a nonjudgmental space for them to exist — more latitude is created for the possibility of change. Without the need to defend one’s psychological territory, one is more willing to venture beyond the known. A safe space is created to explore.

If you build a bridge into someone else’s world, they are more likely to step into yours.

These are the types of conversations that I believe are crucial not just individually, but also collectively.

From Separateness to Connection

Ineffective and instinctual persuasion strategies are ultimately based in fear. And the further we grow apart, the more fear grows, leading to more of an effort to persuade through ineffective means (and on and on in a negative spiral).

Fear is ultimately based in the illusion of separateness, or ego. Continued divisiveness in the world is serving and strengthening the ego. Despite our best efforts to “bring people together” (which usually just means to “my side”), we are pushing each other apart. This is in the service of being right and maintaining ego.

If we are to truly listen to one another, we might see the world in a slightly (or wholly) different way. That would threaten our identities and ideology; that would threaten ego.

Soon we may have to ask ourselves, which world is better to live in? One where I am right, or one where we are happy?



Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist. Clinical Assistant Professor @ USC. Founder/CEO of The Middle Way. Writing at the intersection of psychology, spirituality, and society.