The Complex Business of Changing People’s Minds

Image by Monsterkoi via Pixabay

“Too often we… enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

John F. Kennedy

At its core, social change leadership is about changing people’s minds. How did you come to have your position on an issue? Was it an event in your personal life? Was it scientific data, or a startling statistic? Did a trusted person convince you?

We can have difficulty knowing exactly how our opinions formed. It is a complicated business. It is usually a combination of factors. It might be strongly-held personal values, or the opinions of people you believe to be knowledgeable, or maybe just gut feelings (see the image below). There are so many filters through which we get information, and form opinions, it is unlikely that an approach relying heavily on data, “facts,” and evidence will be enough to change minds.

Image: Lbeaumont, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Confirmation Bias

Once a person acquires what they know, it can be difficult for them to consider changing their mind. For many people, their stated beliefs have become almost indistinguishable from their identity as a human being. Admitting they are wrong about one issue might make them question everything that they believe. The thought that something made them question something they thought to be true can often motivate them to seek out more arguments to rationalize what they already believe. This is called confirmation bias.

It is important to note that confirmation bias isn’t simply looking for like-minded sources to counter evidence-based arguments. The bias also assumes that the evidence that supports one’s position is more important or valuable, even if it is not supported by data, science, or rigorous analysis. In a world with social media, the biased search for, and interpretation of information is easier than ever. We may recognize that those with opposing views are repeating information from the same limited number of sources.

One key to understanding how you might change minds is to make sure that you are not in an echo chamber yourself. If you want to overcome confirmation bias, and make objective decisions, you must keep an open mind and be willing to be proven wrong. It isn’t enough to know what an adversary believes. You need to find out why they believe it. Challenge yourself to look at things objectively.

Changing the Approach

(Note: I don’t have a degree in rhetoric, or claim expertise in psychology, marketing or any professional field that asserts to have a scientific approach to persuasion. I’m just suggesting a few approaches that community organizers and others have found to be successful.)

You need to change some minds. Screaming, belittling, and drowning people in data doesn’t seem to be working. You may need a radical new approach. As counterintuitive as it might seem, imagine an approach that begins with humility, empathy, and compassion. These are not signs of weakness. They are indicators that you want to enter into a civil exchange where both parties are heard and understood.

It is Necessary to Listen to Individuals

You won’t change minds at a large rally. Rallies are for preaching to the converted. People’s opinions are very personal. As I said earlier, values and beliefs are core parts of an individual’s identity. Your success at changing minds depends on authentic, interpersonal communication. As economist Thomas Sowell put it, “If you want to get each individual’s honest opinion, you don’t want that opinion to be influenced by others who are present, much less allow a group to coordinate what they are going to say.”

Rapoport’s Rules are a good way to structure an honest, respectful, conversation with someone who’s mind you’d like to change. According to RationalWiki, Rapoport’s Rules “. . .  are a set of rules intended to encourage productive, critical discourse. In particular, the rules seek to avoid straw man representations of an opponent’s argument and to avoid the backfire effect that criticism often provokes.” There are four general rules:

  1. “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”

You should present choices based on a vision of how things might be. People need choices. Listen to people describe how their opinions reflect, or have an impact on their lives. What assumptions are they starting from? What do they believe that you do not? In what ways are their values reflected in the vision you present? The more you understand that, the more you can use it to your advantage.

Be genuinely curious. Admit your ignorance. Ask them to point you to more information about the larger, remaining points of contention. If they are unable to point you to any “authoritative” source you may be able to plant some seeds of doubt. Ask them if they agree with 50% of your position, or if you are feeling confident, maybe 60%. Try to discover the personal connection they have to the ideas on which you agree.

Evidence and Truth

Bertrand Russell said, “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.” If you seek social change, you know that support for the status quo is not usually rooted in evidence-based decision making.

Evidence-based facts are, however, still important. They always matter in courtrooms, and in science. And even though they should also matter in matters of policy and public opinion, for many people evidence does not equal truth. You cannot rely on evidence alone to change people’s minds. You have to be prepared to make emotional appeals. Your success will appeal to shared values and the recognition of the life experiences of those whose minds you seek to change.

Related Resources on This Site

It is important to identify issues that people view as zero-sum questions. (See my article, “Getting Beyond Either/Or,” I look at thinking about ways that adversarial, zero-sum issues might be re-framed to explore productive dialogue around differences of opinion.)

It isn’t necessary or realistic to convince everyone to embrace your point of view. My piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” reminds us that when you’re in the business of changing minds, you are not only talking to people who have dug in their heels in direct opposition to the change you seek. There are undecided people, as well as people whose commitment to the status quo is not necessarily very strong.

Have an Elevator Speech

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Albert Einstein
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay

An elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive synopsis that you use to create interest in your issue, a project, or an idea. It is called an elevator message because you should be able to articulate your message in the time that a short elevator ride would take.

How do you create a message that can be delivered in 30 seconds or less? First, remember that the goal is not to try to squeeze as much information as possible into your 30 seconds. What you are trying to do is to give someone one compelling idea to think about (or if you’re really successful, act on) that relates to your cause.

I am always saying that the usually unspoken questions at the heart of many conversations are: 1) what’s in it for me; and 2) what’s it going to cost? Self-interest motivates people. This is important to remember when thinking about your message.

I recommend trying to create an elevator speech in just five sentences or phrases:

  1. Say who you are (Hi, I’m John).
  2. Get their attention (shocking or surprising data point or something that speaks directly to commonly shared values).
  3. Note your group’s ultimate goal and general strategy (“We work to end (issue) by (one or two primary strategies.”).
  4. State succinctly how that benefits the listener.
  5. Share how can they find out more information.

Some more tips:

  1. Use natural language. Practice your speech aloud, and at a conversational pace.
  2. It should not sound “memorized.”
  3. Read the room. Depending on your audience, you may need to have more than one benefit ready to explain.
  4. If you are part of an organization, or an organized group, you should not all be delivering identical messages.
  5. Practice often with friends and allies.

Reciprocity

[Note: I originally published this piece on the ABCD in Action website.]

“There is one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life -reciprocity.”

Confucius

In the world of community-building there may be no concept more important than reciprocity. The acknowledgement of mutual dependence is at the core of a healthy society. Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt calls it, “the basic currency of social life.”

I realize that anthropologists, and economists have their own definitions, so I want to be clear. I am not defining reciprocity simply as some sort of exchange marketplace. I’m talking about reciprocity as the recognition of the fundamental humanity and value of every member of the community, and the recognition of the interdependence of each community member.

Recognition of mutual benefit is important. You see it demonstrated all the time in thriving communities. People with no school-aged children will vote in favor of school referendums because they understand the value of educating youth. People shop at farmer’s markets, and locally-owned businesses because it sustains community economic development.

A sense of reciprocity is also expressed through volunteerism. According to The Corporation for National & Community Service, one out of four American’s volunteer, two out of three Americans help their neighbor (informal volunteering). These volunteers are almost twice as likely to donate to a charity. To be reciprocal is to look at the world around you through a community lens.

Reciprocity is:

  • The place where trust resides;
  • A key to belonging;
  • A contributor to one’s sense of place;
  • Generosity of spirit;
  • The enemy of selfishness; and
  • A condition that allows each person’s gifts, skills, and talents to be shared and celebrated.

A Few Words About Anger

Image by BedexpStock via Pixabay

You are interested in social change. Therefore, I assume that you are probably angry about something, right?

Anger is a powerful emotion. Repressing anger can create stress and anxiety. It has to be expressed. Anger can sometimes result in hopelessness, or in aggression (anger as payback). But, you don’t have to let anger drain you. You can use it energize your belief that the thing making you angry can be changed.

The thing that allows anger to provoke action for positive change is social agency. Social agency is the belief that you have the capacity to act both independently, and with others to change the world around you. It requires a strong sense of self-efficacy. You have to believe that change is possible, and that you have the necessary power to create that change.

We get angry about injustice. Your anger can help you articulate your values. It can motivate you to take a stand, and work for justice. As Aristotle said back in the fourth century B.C.,“. . . the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant.” (Rhetoric, Book II – Chapter 2)

Further Reading on This Site

You Always Have Power

Authority Versus Power

More Resources

Anger: A Powerful Force for Empathy and Change by Susana Rinderle

Harnessing anger for social change by Dr Monique Mitchell Turner

Authors: Women’s Anger Is A Catalyst For Societal Change by Shannon Henry Kleiber

The Importance of Imagination in Creating Change

Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

Albert Einstein

Humans will never fly. Television is just a fad. Who would ever need a computer in their home, much less carry one around wherever they go? Some people have trouble picturing a different future. Imagination allows you to see changes that others cannot. It can also help to forge a path to those changes.

So many of the topics that I have written about here illustrate the importance of imagination. Having an imagination is essential. Imagination helps turn ideas into actions. It is a key to problem solving. You have to be able to imagine a solution to a problem you are trying to solve.

The ability for any group of people in search of a better quality of life, to create a shared vision of what changes they will have to work toward, requires imagination. Maintaining the hope, or the expectation that your shared vision is possible requires that you be able to imagine a better world. When you ask someone to keep their “eyes on the prize,” you are reminding them to imagine that improved life.

One way to discover creative strategies and solutions is to seek out creative people. Who is creating art in your community? Who is managing to do great work with seemingly very few assets? The most imaginative people may not be in your usual circle of acquaintances. You may have to look at the margins. Find the people who are otherwise invisible. Find these imaginative people and listen to what they have to offer. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” (For more on creativity and leadership see, “Traditional Versus Creative Leadership.”)

If imagination is so important, why is it then that so many people say that they don’t really have much imagination? This isn’t a problem with children. Kids will frequently remind you of their capacity to imagine. They also often turn that imagination into creative works. Many adults, however, apparently lose their imagination mojo.

In the 1940s an advertising executive named Alex Osborn (He’s the guy who coined the term, ‘brainstorming’), recognized that this lack of adult imagination was a problem, so he came up with something he called, “creative problem solving.” The idea is that imagination can be cultivated and nurtured. You can read more about it here.

I have written previously that the world is not simply made up of two groups: your allies, and those opposed to your ideas. A great number of people are simply unaware that your issue is even a problem. The need to attract attention to the change that you are trying to create requires imagination. With all the ideas competing for our attention, imaginative, fresh messages stand a better chance of being heard.

More Resources

The Importance Of Imagination – Tao de Haas
6 Proven Benefits of Being More Imaginative – Mental Floss
This is how to harness the power of human imagination for social change – World Economic Forum

Three types of intelligence that will help you lead change

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

Stephen Hawking

Although I agree that it can come in useful on certain occasions, if you were hoping for tips on reconnaissance or spying, you are going to be disappointed. I apologize. I am using “intelligence” here in the context of acquiring skills, habits, and knowledge that help you better understand yourself, and other people.

We frequently think of intelligent people in terms of academic achievement. People with academic intelligence are logical, and seek evidence based on the analysis of data. They remember theories, and formulas. They got good grades in school.

There are, however, other types of intelligence. Some people say there are eight types, others nine. Some believe there are 12 types. I want to focus on three particular types of intelligence that are necessary in order to effect change. They are: emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and existential intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

I like the definition of emotional intelligence on the helpguide.org website it says that “emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.”

We are passionate about the things we want to change in the world. Passion and emotion go hand in hand. We feel the desire for change on a very personal level. The emotions of both our allies, and our rivals run deep. Emotions can lead to deeper ways of knowing. They can also inflame tensions.

Things you can do to develop your emotional intelligence include:

  • Hone your listening skills – Avoid preconceptions. Encourage the speaker to be open and honest. Understand the speaker’s point of view and ideas, even if you don’t agree with them.
  • Understand that all criticism is not an invitation to fight.
  • Try to empathize. Don’t avoid difficult conversations. Examine your own biases.
  • Be aware of the ways your emotions might be barriers to understanding complex situations. Take time to consider expressing clear, thoughtful responses rather than simply giving knee-jerk reactions.

Social Intelligence

Social intelligence is developed through experience. Unfortunately, we cannot anticipate every circumstance and event in life. We can’t fully cultivate social intelligence simply from educating ourselves. Sometimes our interpersonal interactions do not go well. Recognizing why those exchanges went poorly helps us learn from our mistakes.

Leading change requires diplomacy. Good diplomats have social intelligence. They show discretion and thoughtfulness in their interactions with other people. Tactful consideration for others builds trust, and trust is priceless.

Healthy personal relationships are at the core of every level of positive change. We do not walk the world alone. In the words of the late American radio personality Earl Nightingale, “Getting along well with other people is still the world’s most needed skill. With it…there is no limit to what person can do. We need people, we need the cooperation of others. There is very little we can do alone.”

Existential Intelligence

Existential intelligence is all about bringing out the philosopher in you. It involves thinking deeply about the big picture. Pondering existential questions is often related to the desire to create social change. For example:

  • Are there values that we all share?
  • Are there universal human rights?
  • What is your purpose in life?

Thinking about life’s big questions can lead to people evaluating their values, and making changes in their lives in an effort to take responsibility for their actions based on those values. People leave “successful” careers to work at making the world a better place. (See the post, “Narrowing the Gap Between Our Ideal and Our Real Values”). You may not spend countless hours contemplating existential questions, but whatever time you do spend will always be time well spent.

There is No One Version of ABCD

This is the latest post in a series that looks at Asset-Based Community Development. Previous posts include:
Asset-Focused Leadership
Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations
The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

I want to present a different way to think about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). People tend to think of ABCD as something that requires a “community” in order to implement strategies, or projects. Community is after all, part of the name, right? We have a vision of what we want things to look like, and our minds jump to a scale that reflects the ideal. We want a ‘big tent,’ and go to great lengths not to exclude anyone. That’s admirable, but I’m impatient. I have a bias toward action.

I believe that before you create a group, or better yet, a network, you consider your own assets. What can I do RIGHT NOW based on the skills, talents, and relationships that I have? Where can I plant the seeds of change? Who can I help educate? Make a list that answers these questions, the make it a to-do list. This is also ABCD.

If when you are accomplishing these small tasks you cross paths with one other person who shares your values and your vision, have them answer the same questions. Then try to connect your combined assets in a way that could lead to a specific action. Do your assets complement each other’s? Do they get you at least halfway to a collaborative action? This is also ABCD.

When I think of things that could be changed for the better, I often divide the necessary changes into two categories. Is this problem something that requires a change in policy, or is it something that can be addressed by changing practice? When you look at a list of changes of practice that could lead to positive improvements, those modifications are frequently things for which you don’t even have to acquire permission. For example, handling situations with more generosity, and more humility isn’t difficult, or expensive. It also tends to reveal shared values among people who are not frequently in conversation. This is also ABCD.

I will repeat something I have said many times before. ABCD isn’t necessarily a detailed process, or plan. It is more of a worldview. You can engage in ABCD without creating an actual asset map. You can engage in ABCD without positional leadership. ABCD simply requires authentic human connection, and a mutual commitment to create change by allowing people to share their skills, talents, and knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

Four Phrases Change Makers are Tired of Hearing

Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay

Note: I realize that more than half of my readers are not U.S.-based, so I apologize in advance for what is probably a very American-centric bit of writing. If there are similarly frustrating phrases where you live, feel free to comment below.


There are certain phrases that make me cringe. My negative reaction to these frequently repeated expressions is rooted in the ways that they can be obstacles to creating change in the world. Here are four of my least favorite phrases.

“It is what it is.”

Being told to “deal with” a frustrating situation because there is nothing you can do to change it, sounds like an instruction to give up. If a condition is unacceptable, there is nothing the people who benefit from the status quo like to hear more than, “all we can do is accept it and get over it.” When you hear, “it is what it is,” the best response is to come up with strategies to create change despite the situation, not give up because of it.

“No offense, but . . .”

Obviously, when you hear this phrase, you are about to be offended. The reason a person will use this phrase when talking to you is that they think that you need to know that they believe that they are smarter than you are. They don’t, however, simply use this thinly veiled passive-aggressiveness to challenge facts. In my experience, “No offense, but,” is frequently the introduction to any number of logical fallacies. It’s a power play often followed by nonsense. Know your stuff. Hold your ground.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I understand that many people find comfort in the thought that a supreme being’s providence makes a horrible reality perhaps a bit more tolerable. Other folks like to explain things based on the alignment of the stars and planets. I’m not here to ask you to abandon your belief system.

There are times, however, when changes in human designed policies and practices are at the core of some terrible things in the world. Yes, everything does happen for a reason, and if we take the time to analyze the situation, we can figure out what those reasons are. And if those reasons can be addressed by correcting flawed human constructs, shouldn’t we do what we can to make those changes?

“In these trying/uncertain times.”

I do not disagree that a global pandemic has created disruption and uncertainty in people’s lives. I also know that for poor and marginalized people, life has always been trying and uncertain. I am not interested in simply getting the world back to a pre-COVID state. I want the world to be better than that.

The pandemic has given lip service to “all of us being in this together.” But in reality, this extraordinary event has reinforced the harsh realities of inequality. Poor people got poorer healthcare. People were deemed “essential workers,” yet were often not paid enough to meet their basic needs. As we move toward returning to “normal,” we need to remember to continue to work on reducing the uncertainty in everyone’s lives.

Finding Answers in the Grassroots

“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Logical, sensible solutions frequently come from the people whose lives are most closely affected by the issues you seek to remedy. Their ideas are usually very insightful and rational, because they have experienced first-hand, the inherent flaws in the current strategies to correct those issues.

Many years ago, I was invited to a meeting around strategies for educating “unbanked” immigrants on the perils related to relying on check cashing businesses and other high interest rate opportunists. The meeting was attended by six or seven well-intentioned, white, gray-haired, male bankers and other business types, myself (an employee of an education-related nonprofit organization younger than the others, but also a white male), and finally a Latina woman who was probably also the youngest person in the room in addition to being the only person of color, and only woman.

I was there just in case there might be a role for my organization to play in any action that might be taken, so I mostly listened. The discussion was primarily about financial literacy curriculum. Banks had developed educational materials, but the materials were all in English. There wasn’t anything in the languages of Latin America, Southeast Asia, or East Africa. There also wasn’t much discussion about any strategies other than translating that traditionally developed and delivered curriculum. That is until the only woman in the room finally spoke.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing, but it was this direct, and this succinct), ‘This is what you have to do. You go to churches, or community centers and talk to parents. You tell them that their kids are going to get ripped off by these places. People want to protect their children so they’ll listen. Of course, it is mostly the parents who are getting taken advantage of by these businesses. You educate the parents, and they will educate their children.’

She knew the culture and how to navigate communicating within it. The best solution did not center on ‘experts’ developing curriculum. Rather, it was rooted in human relationships, and parents wanting to understand something better so that they could protect their children.

I have seen this sort of wisdom emerge over and over throughout the years. I once attended a workshop where a man in my affordable housing discussion group said that the rent on his apartment was higher than a house payment would be for a home that would suit his family’s needs. He just didn’t have the money to make a down payment sufficient for a bank to give him a loan on a house.  He wasn’t an economist, but he knew a solution to increasing his low-income family’s wealth by getting equity in a house.

My introduction to the concept of environmental racism came via the words of a Native American living on a reservation next to a hazardous waste dump. I learned about potential approaches to the multiple transportation, and childcare challenges faced by single mothers, from those women.

People can be experts on the issues related to the challenges they face in their everyday lives. If you need technical expertise seek it out. However, do not underestimate the wisdom of regular folks whose expertise has been gained from experience

The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

NOTE: This post is a companion piece to the post, “Asset Focused Leadership,” which provides an overview of ABCD fundamentals.

“Happy accidents are real gifts, and they can open the door to a future that didn’t even exist. It’s kind of nice sometimes to set up something to encourage or allow happy accidents to happen.” — David Lynch

An asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to creating change requires a recognition of the fundamental humanity of every member of the community, and allows each person’s gifts, skills, and talents to be shared and celebrated. It should not be surprising that these basic tenets often result in unexpected discoveries of human ingenuity and accomplishment.

Communities use ABCD to uncover, and creatively implement ways to address local issues. Along the way, however, small groups of collaborators, many of whom have only recently met, begin to see their community through a different lens. As people work together to create positive change in their community, social capital, and trusted personal relationships are created.

That trust can be a key to a sense of belonging for people who formerly found themselves on the margins. Being surrounded by gifted, caring people does more than instill confidence that committed people can get things done. It often uncovers a generosity of spirit, and a level of compassion that the community had not previously seen.

The unexpected benefits of taking the time to ask people what they care deeply about, and what their talents are, consistently changes the conversation. People are forced to rethink notions about where wisdom and expertise reside. That gives them confidence to believe that they don’t have to wait around for someone else do something about improving the things that they are passionate about.

Action Plans for Social Change

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Creating change is a multifaceted endeavor. There are deeply rooted issues, diverse groups of stakeholders, and many moving parts. In fact, the thought of wrapping our collective arms around an enormous problem, and replacing it with something good seems too overwhelming for most people. The path to success for too many people appears to be unattainable. That is why it helps to have an action plan.

The popular, “Model for Managing Complex Change” credited to Dr. Mary Lippitt, and popularized by Dr. Timothy Knoster, suggests that there are six elements necessary to effectively create change. Those elements are: vision, consensus, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. (You can see a good general overview of the model written by Sergio Caredda, here.) All of these elements are discussed to varying degrees elsewhere on this site. Right now, I want to focus on the idea of an action plan.

What is an Action Plan?

An action plan essentially answers the important who, what, when, where, and how questions around coordinated activities that bring you closer to your goals. The plan also addresses questions related to logistics, coordination, communication, and resources. If you’re looking for some pretty good “how to” instructions for community-centered action plans, I’d suggest the action plan section on the Community Tool Box website.

Action plans recognize and target specific problems. They implement strategies that must be informed by the people who are most adversely affected by the status quo, and they help to create the awareness, and the conditions for a readiness and willingness to change.

The most effective plans recognize that minds have to change before policies can change. Some of those minds are opposed to your vision, and some are undecided, or simply ambivalent (See the post, “Change Happens at the Center”). So do your homework because as Neil de Grasse Tyson writes, “How strongly you feel about an issue is not itself a measure of the strength of your argument.”

Scale

Scale is perhaps the most important consideration in planning actions intended to create social change. The smaller the scale, the easier it is to create a more detailed plan. For example, a plan to get a local council to remove discriminatory policies, is easier than creating a single plan to eliminate all institutionalized racism. The latter requires thousands of smaller plans with a shared vision. Social movements are comprised of countless small actions undertaken with a common goal in mind.

Contingency Plans

Good planning also recognizes that things don’t always happen exactly as they are planned. Just because one part of a plan didn’t go as expected, does not mean that all is lost. It is always useful to do some sort of scenario planning to create options where you might encounter unanticipated events. When you are assessing potential “if this, then that” situations, you are weighing the risks and rewards of certain actions. Consider the implications of individual points of breakdown in your plan. Making contingency planning part of your action plan can keep you moving forward.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” -– Abraham Lincoln