To Persuade People, First Disarm Their Defenses

Jul 10, 2024 | At Work

By: Michael McQueen

Oliver Wendell Holmes famously observed that “It’s a rare person who wants to hear what they don’t want to hear.”

While humans have always been resistant to uncomfortable and unfamiliar ideas, our ideology-driven and polarized age means that changing people’s minds today can feel harder than ever. Certainty is so often esteemed over curiosity and obstinance too easily takes the place of open-mindedness.

Stubbornness may be alive and well in political discourse, but it is no less prevalent in our teams and organisations. Debates or disagreements can quickly descend into ego-driven battles causing individuals to double-down on their existing ideas as a form of self-preservation. But given the fact that we spend an estimated 40 percent of our work lives trying to persuade the thinking of others, we must be careful to avoid using 19th and 20th century techniques for trying to change 21st century minds.

The vital first step in overcoming obstinance is to understand why people don’t change their minds – even when they want to and know they should.

The Psychological ‘Sunk Cost’

Many of us are familiar with the idea of an economic sunk cost. This describes what happens when we stick with an unfavorable decision or course of action simply because we have already invested so much money and time in it.

In much the same way, we have a tendency to hold onto opinions or worldviews simply because we have invested so much of our time, energy and – most importantly – our reputation into them. As a result, we will cling to old ideas, approaches, and ways of thinking rather than embracing ones we know will serve us better because the appearance of changing our mind can come at too great a cost for our dignity.

Sometimes this isn’t a matter of keeping up appearances, but of maintaining mental stability. If ‘the facts’ seem to be pointing away from an idea that we have built our career, status or authority on, then the price of following the evidence is simply too high. When confronted with inconvenient truths, many of us become afraid of what I call the Unravelling Effect, asking ourselves, “if this one thing is not true or accurate, what else have I believed to be true that may not be?”

Being “in-between beliefs” like this —where we are no longer sure of what we previously assumed but unconvinced about an alternative—can feel deeply unstable and unsettling. This psychological discomfort tends to be all the motivation we need to look for a resolution that will restore the safety of certainty—even if that means ignoring evidence and returning to old ideas despite a nagging sense that something’s not right.

Beyond the psychological aspects of stubbornness, there is a physiological process involved too. In their book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, Jack and Sara Gorman cite fascinating research that shows that we experience a genuine sense of pleasure in the form of a dopamine rush when exposed to information that reinforces our existing beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong,” according to the Gormans.

Put simply, feeling right feels good and as a result, many people would rather feel right than actually be right.

Reduce the Cost of Change

Given its real impact on our decisions, the influence of fear is something we cannot underestimate in our interactions with others. When we are the one being presented with a new idea, it’s essential that we remain conscious of whether our aversion to change might be blinding us. On the other hand, when we are attempting to persuade someone else, we need to use strategies that not only disarm their defensiveness but alleviate the fears behind it. In other words, we need to reduce the perceived cost of changing.

With the primary changed-related fears often centring around a perceived loss of dignity, certainty or power, the best strategies for persuasion work by restoring a sense of control to the individual and framing change as something that can be done without shame or embarrassment.

Bearing this in mind, persuasion is as much about allowing someone to save face as it is about winning them over. We need to ensure others feel able to acknowledge they may have been wrong without having to admit they are stupid.

Harness the Power of Doubt

The ancient masters of persuasion understood the power of self-disclosure. Before neuroscience and behavioural economics had studied it, Roman rhetorician Quintilian maintained that doubt and uncertainty were crucial to a persuasive argument. This idea came to be known as “dubitatio” from which we derive the modern English word “dubious.”

Leading with vulnerability may feel deeply exposing, but it has a powerfully disarming effect on those we are seeking to influence. Numerous studies in recent years have confirmed precisely this dynamic. For instance, analysis by social psychologist Kip Williams found that jurors were more likely to view an attorney and their case more favorably if the attorney revealed weaknesses in their case before the opposition had the chance to do so. In doing this, the attorney signalled that they were fair-minded, balanced and honest. In fact, verdicts were statistically more likely to be given in favor of the party first to bring up a shortcoming in their argument.

Leading with self-disclosure might seem counterintuitive when our culture tells us that self-confidence and self-promotion are the key to getting cut through with our ideas. While we tend to assume that offering our strongest evidence and most polished arguments will prove most persuasive, winning hearts and minds is always a function of trust – and trust requires vulnerability.

By leading with your own doubts, you move the conversation away from the combative stance of, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’ and towards a place where both parties have the freedom to engage sincerely.

Familiarize the Foreign Idea

Our compulsion to cling to certainty means we are far more attracted to new ideas when they are framed as mere extensions of the past or are aligned with a belief we have already established. A new or foreign idea will always illicit a knee-jerk reaction from our limbic system because of the potential danger it may present. However, if it is familiarized by a connection to something we are already comfortable with, we are much more likely to stay open-minded. To this point, I’ve often marveled at the genius of eighteenth-century inventor, James Watt, in using “horsepower” to describe the capability of mechanical engines.

In his controversional but ground-breaking book, The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene suggests a series of ways to familiarize foreign ideas. “A simple gesture like using an old title, or keeping the same number for a group, will tie you to the past and support you with the authority of history,” he observes. “Too much innovation is traumatic and will lead to revolt. If you are new to a position of power, or an outsider trying to build a power base, make a show of respecting the old way of doing things. If change is necessary, make it feel like a gentle improvement on the past.”

Persuading stubborn people may be harder than ever but it is far from impossible. Those we are seeking to influence are far more likely to consider and embrace new ideas if we find ways to disarm resistance, aim for familiarity and reduce the cost of change.