Michael McQueen is an award-winning speaker, business strategist, and trend forecaster. He has helped some of the world’s best-known brands maintain relevance and has authored five best-selling books.
Below, Michael shares five key insights from his new book, Mindstuck: Mastering the Art of Changing Minds. Listen to the audio version—read by Michael himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. We’re using 19th and 20th century tactics for changing 21st century minds.
We are told you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But what if you could? Having spent the past two decades helping leaders and organizations embrace the changes they’d rather fight or ignore, I think changing the minds of even the most stubborn individuals is possible. However, the process is very different from what conventional wisdom suggests.
While stubbornness is nothing new, we live in an era when it is more prevalent than ever. You could almost describe obstinance as one of the hallmarks of our age. Yet changing people’s minds is something we spend a lot of our lives attempting. We spend 40 percent of our time trying to sway the minds of others, but our persuasive efforts are only successful three to five percent of the time.
One reason is that we often use 19th- and 20th-century tactics to change 21st-century minds. It’s a dynamic I like to call the Francis Bacon Effect. Francis Bacon was a 17th-century scientist and philosopher who is often described as one of the founding fathers of the Enlightenment. Francis Bacon’s big idea was that humans are fundamentally rational and reasonable. As such, he suggested that to educate or influence someone to change their thinking, the key was exposing them to reliable evidence and logical arguments. This way, they’d have no option but to come to their senses and see reason. In recent years, not only have we discovered that this isn’t the case, but the opposite is true. Exposing people to even the most reliable evidence and logical arguments tends to cause their minds to clamp down rather than open.
The latest discoveries in brain science offer clues as to why this is the case. It’s worth clarifying that we can be reasonable and rational, but only part of our brain does this well. I describe this as the inquiring mind, which lives in our brains’ frontal lobe. The inquiring mind loves logic and is both meticulous and nuanced. However, it is slow and takes a lot of energy to use, so we use it far less than you might assume. In fact, our inquiring mind is responsible for only about five to ten percent of our perceptions and judgments. The rest of our thinking happens in a part of our brains which I refer to as the instinctive mind. Our instinctive mind is impulsive and efficient and is governed by the parts of our brain associated with the limbic system. This is one of the most ancient parts of our cognitive hardware, and it’s typically associated with tribalism, processing emotions, and flight-or-fight reflexes.
One of the things our limbic system does best is protect us. From a survival perspective, our instincts have served humanity well for thousands of years. The problem is that our instinctive minds react in much the same way, whether a threat is physical or psychological. The latest brain research has revealed that when we are confronted with information or ideas that threaten our opinions and convictions, our neurological instinct is to batten down the hatches and retreat to stubbornness. Even the best evidence and logic will struggle to get a fair hearing when this happens. Pushing harder in our persuasive efforts will invariably backfire. Influencing others must always start with intentional efforts to disarm rather than provoke.
2. Lessen the loss.
One of the dominant emotions associated with stubbornness is fear. Although we’re often told that humans are inherently afraid of change, recent research reveals this is not true. It is not change that we fear most; it is loss. Whether it’s a loss of pride, dignity, or certainty, successful persuasion isn’t as much about selling the upsides of change as it is about lessening the loss.
One of the dynamics that plays into this is something I refer to as 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 course of action simply because we have already invested so much money and time in it. Similarly, we tend to hold onto opinions or worldviews simply because we have invested time, energy, and (most importantly) our reputation into them.
“Whether it’s a loss of pride, dignity, or certainty, successful persuasion isn’t as much about selling the upsides of change as it is about lessening the loss.”
As a result, we will cling to old ways of thinking rather than embracing ones we know are more accurate or will serve us better because changing our minds can come at too great a cost for our dignity. We become afraid of The Unraveling Effect, asking ourselves, if this one thing is not accurate, what else have I believed to be true that may not be?
“In-between beliefs” like this can feel unsettling. This psychological discomfort motivates our instinctive mind to find a resolution that restores the safety of certainty—even if that means ignoring evidence despite a nagging sense that something’s not right.
The implications of this for persuasion are significant. When we ask someone to consider a new idea or are challenged to do so ourselves, this is no small ask. It means not just adopting a new viewpoint but discarding an old one.
The fear of losing certainty becomes particularly terrifying when ideas become conflated with our identity. Even when a counterpart sees the sense in our perspective, the most rock-solid logic will have little effect if they feel ego-bound to maintain their position. The other party may agree with us deep down, but they’ll never admit it if they feel they will lose face. As Ed Coper suggests in his book Facts and Other Lies, “We must never force people to admit they are stupid in order to admit they’re wrong.”
3. Practical ways to avoid resistance when trying to influence.
This comes down to allowing for autonomy. Humans don’t respond well to coercion, so we need to ensure that our persuasion doesn’t rob the listener of their sense of control. The best way to do this is by making sure people feel they have a choice. Civic engagement expert Peter Block said it best: “The yes of another person means nothing if they don’t have the ability to say no. There can be no commitment if there is no choice.”
One way to affirm people’s autonomy (without giving them free rein) is the technique of guided choices. This is an approach many parents use with their children, but it’s equally effective in leadership contexts. In the same way that a parent may give their child an option over the order in which they do their chores, we can offer choices that allow for a sense of agency. People are more likely to follow through with something if they feel they have some control over the process.
Beyond guiding choices, another powerful technique for affirming autonomy is to give the option of doing nothing. Use these fifteen words after making your appeal: “If you can’t do it, I’ll completely understand.” Then, after a brief pause, you continue: “If you can, I’d really appreciate it.” Of course, this approach has plenty of variations—phrases like please don’t feel obligated or this is totally up to you—but the principle remains the same. The other individual retains the power to choose. It also highlights the most helpful and generous choice they could make. Giving people an out almost guarantees they’ll opt in.
Approaches like this effectively motivate changes in behavior, but the same principle applies when influencing beliefs and opinions. Coercive kinds of persuasion are less obvious here, but they can take the form of resorting to fear, shame, or guilt. While playing to negative emotions can be highly effective in eliciting a reaction, doing so is counterproductive in the long term as it usually comes at the cost of genuine affinity and trust. Appealing to higher emotions like hope, altruism, and responsibility not only grants people the freedom to choose but it encourages them to choose based on a positive vision for themselves and their world. Such changes are far more likely to stick.
4. The importance of trust.
After years of studying what builds rapport between individuals, neuro-economist Paul Zak discovered that the most important factor for building trust is our humanness. Being real, vulnerable, and even fallible results in the release of the hormone oxytocin—the neuro mechanism humans unconsciously use to determine who we can trust.
However, vulnerability tends to be the opposite posture most of us adopt when attempting to persuade. Instead, we generally lead with our best arguments and our most irrefutable evidence. We assume that strength, assertiveness, and a sense of being impregnable will make us persuasive. Things like doubt and uncertainty are to be concealed because these show weakness.
“The ancients realized that vulnerability was the essential foundation for building affinity and trust.”
The original masters of persuasion had a very different view. The ancients realized that vulnerability was the essential foundation for building affinity and trust. Roman rhetorician Quintilian knew this. For him, one of the most persuasive things any individual could do was not just to acknowledge their uncertainties and doubts but to lead with them. This idea came to be known as dubitatio from which we derive the modern English word dubious.
Numerous studies in recent years have confirmed how effective self-doubt is in the process of winning people over to us and our ideas. For instance, a social psychologist Kip Williams meta-analysis found that jurors were more likely to view an attorney and their case favorably if the attorney revealed weaknesses in their case before the opposition had the chance to do so. In doing this, the attorney signaled that they are fair-minded, balanced, and honest. Verdicts were statistically more likely to be given in favor of the party first to bring up a shortcoming in their argument.
While it’s only human to want to present ourselves in the best light, doing so is both unproductive and unpersuasive. To build trust and affinity with those we seek to influence, vulnerability, self-doubt, and self-disclosure are more likely to shift the dial.
5. Aim for aporia.
The very principles, practices, and purpose of debate have changed so enormously over the centuries that the undisputed original experts of argument—Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato—would hardly recognize what we describe today as debate. For a start, the ancient concept of argument was far from a zero-sum game. It was not about winning or losing, scoring points, or ego strutting.
For Socrates and his contemporaries, losing an argument was not a failure or a source of shame and embarrassment. Quite the contrary. The feeling associated with being tripped up in an argument was described as a moment of enlightenment, self-knowledge, and freedom. They had a name for it: aporia.
According to modern philosopher James Garvey, the ancient notion of aporia was “a weightless moment as you float free of the mental rut you were in—you stop, your eyes narrow, and no words come to you.” This feeling of aporia represented a wonderful opportunity to move in a new intellectual direction and grasp new possibilities.
The word aporia means “no path,” and that’s what losing an argument once represented. It was a liberating and exhilarating feeling to be in unfamiliar territory where the next step was unclear. In their pursuit of intellectual free-fall, the ancient Greeks would argue passionately for hours, not with the intention of dominating their opponent; aporia was their aim.
In our adversarial age, when it’s rare for a discussion in the public square to end up in any place other than a battleground, this is a concept we would do well to revive. When we seek to persuade others, we should consider the words of eighteenth-century French essayist Joseph Joubert, “The aim of an argument should not be victory, but progress.”
Although we may win the point or trump our opponent’s argument, if our victory has come at the cost of the relationship, we have both lost. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that genuine persuasion has occurred. As the American writer and columnist Tim Kreider observes, exhausting someone through argument is not the same thing as convincing them. In the context of any high-stakes interaction where we are looking to persuade another individual, the decision we all need to make carefully is whether we are more interested in making a point or making progress. We may live in an age of obstinance, but I’m convinced persuasion is an art that everyone can master.
To listen to the audio version read by author Michael McQueen, download the Next Big Idea App today: