How to Try to Change a Mind (3 steps)

Sep 18, 2022 | Change, Leadership

Sometimes it can feel like trying to change someone’s mind is not worth the energy.

Maybe we just stay in our corners. Or maybe as a leader or parent, we try to dictate rather than try to change a person’s mind.

But if we never try, we don’t create change. We stay stuck in our separate corners.

How can we break the stalemate?

Here are 3 basic steps to get started:

#1: Recognize the brain’s confirmation bias

Our belief systems begin to form at a young age based on the influences around us, including family, religion, culture, society and the media.

Once belief systems are formed, the brain tends to look for evidence that confirms them and ignores or dismisses information that doesn’t. With so much new information to process and understand every day, the brain needs to decide what to pay attention to and what to dismiss. If new information risks dismantling an existing belief system, it’s safer to dismiss it.

This is confirmation bias, and it’s trying to protect us. The alternative is to threaten existing systems and beliefs.

When it comes to politics, research shows that opinions are formed based on emotions rather than facts. An attack on a belief system can feel like an attack on an identity. And that’s something to defend.

So defending prior values and beliefs is part of being human. With this understanding, we can work with it – both in others and in ourselves.

#2: Listen with curiosity

How likely are you to change your mind if you don’t feel listened to and understood first? It’s like someone telling you to calm down when you’re really upset.

When we don’t feel heard, we can either shut down or get defensive in a type of fight/flight/freeze reaction. And then we’re operating from the limbic brain (sometimes called the “emotional brain”), and it becomes nearly impossible to access the prefrontal cortex which we need for understanding of self and others, and compassion.

From the limbic brain, we get into an “us vs. them” mindset because we feel threatened. This is not a place where change is available.

So before trying to change someone’s mind, we first need to have the capacity to listen in a non-reactive way. As Dan Siegel says, we need to “widen the window of tolerance” for listening to opposing views.

This means not only not reacting negatively, but actually listening with curiosity to understand their point of view.

If you can’t listen without reacting, then it’s best to postpone the discussion to a time when you feel more calm and grounded.

#3: Present information in neutral or positive way

If – and only if – you are able to be in a neutral or positive feeling state after listening, then you can present your opposing view in a non-confrontational way.

If the other person senses anger or judgment, in a reflexive process called neuroception, their nervous system will sense a lack of safety. In such a threat state, the brain can’t fully receive new information. (For more on the neuroscience of connection, check out this post.)

If we are able to present our side in an open and friendly way, then we can be heard. We might not change the person’s mind in the moment, but we will have started a dialogue which opens the door for understanding, respect and the possibility of finding common ground.

Sometimes the mind that might be changed – and the window of tolerance that might be widened – could be our own. And that’s a win too!

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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