Three Ways to Open Someone's Mind: Lessons From Sales

Posted by on December 07, 2017 at 3:53 PM

By Erik Fogg, Chief, ReConsider

You know arguing with people doesn't really work. Presenting people with facts that contradict their beliefs actually backfires and causes them to dig in more.

After hearing this, most people throw up their hands. They assume this means not only that changing people's minds is impossible, but that this "backfire" effect totally-only-happens-to-people-who-disagree-with-me.

But there are people outside of politics whose well-being and next meal depend on opening people's minds: they're in sales. Their job, over and over, requires getting people to open their minds to the idea of parting with their hard-earned money in exchange for a thing... often, a thing they didn't know existed until just now!

More than Bill O'Reilly or John Stewart, these salespeople have a lot to teach us about how to get folks to listen and put themselves in a mindset where they're ready to disagree. We've applied each of these in political discussions to great effect, too.

The crux behind each of these is that people tend to agree with people they identify with. You see it in politics; you also see it in sales. That's why salespeople ask you about yourself and chat you up before asking you to part with your cash.

1) Always Agree

I got this bit of advice from Grant Cardone, in The Closer's Survival Guide (the Audiobook is particularly delightful). Upon first reading this sounds a bit crazy: how do you change someone's mind by agreeing with them? But here's an example from Grant (paraphrased):

"This is too expensive."

"I agree it's a lot of money. It's the most valuable product on the market and has the best return on investment. If there's any trouble paying for it, I can help you finance it."

So notice that Grant makes his point without telling the buyer that they're wrong. You can do the same in a political conversation. I heard a story that went like this:

"Capitalism has been terrible for the average person."

That's the sortof statement I'm typically a bit skeptical about; since the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the typical income has gone up by a few orders of magnitude. But I wasn't going to get to the bottom of the conversation by making this person dig in, so I said:

"Yeah it definitely has its problems. Now help me understand..." and then I went on with questions. But by starting with agreement, you help the other person see that you're not part of an enemy camp--you're someone they can work with.

2) Be On Their Team

This next one comes from Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes.

I don't care what party you vote for: if you want someone to be open-minded to you, you're on their team. Typically, this means dropping "I" or "you," and saying "we," instead--implying you and your interlocutor, rather than you and your tribe, separate from them.

A friend of mine taught me this and she makes a habit of, in every political conversation, using the term "we" whenever she wants to make a point that challenges the status quo. For example:

"We also need to make sure we take the following into account..."

She "sneaks" her way into conversations with conservatives, liberals, moderates, and libertarians--contrary to alienating all of them, she fits in with all of them. She's on their team, no matter how they identify. And guess what? They're all willing to listen. Rather than conservatives thinking she's a liberal and vice versa, they all implicitly believe she's one of them, so she has the credibility to influence them.

3) Lead By Example: Listen to Understand

This last one comes from Susan Scott's Fierce Conversations.

Remember the backfire effect? It probably happens to you, too. While you're outside of your little bubble, you're going to hear facts that contradict your narrative! Part of your brain is going to go through that "backfire:" it'll want to dig in and decide your interlocutor is ridiculous.

As this happens, "fake it 'til you make it." Don't contradict them; ask to learn more. If you're going to demonstrate disagreement, tell them that your initial reaction is to disagree but you'd love to hear their case. Listen to truly understand their perspective: it's likely there are reasonable people that agree with them, and good reasons they have their perspective.

You may even have to change your mind. People go into these conversations convinced they're completely right, with the aim of getting everyone else to agree with them. The other folks you're talking to probably aren't idiots and they can smell out if you have an agenda.

But what if you went with the intent to learn and understand? Or, if you can't do that, invited them to share, and listened? Do you think they're more likely to listen to you, if you listen to them?

Erik Fogg is the Chief at ReConsider, co-author of the ReConsider blog, co-host of the ReConsider podcast, and author of Wedged: How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again. He has worked with MIT, Harvard, United Nations NGOs, and various private advocacy organizations in his efforts to understand and combat political polarization in the United States. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are strictly those of the author and do not represent the views of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, the Bridge Alliance, or the Bridge Alliance’s member organizations. Additionally, the Bridge Alliance Education Fund makes no representations as to the accuracy of this post’s contents.