Want to Change Someone's Mind? Lead with Emotion

When you want to make change, lead with emotion. Get-It-Done Guy explains how.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #503

Millennials rock! When I talk to my millennial friends, one of their common themes is change, and change for the better. Social change. Political change. Environmental change. And, since they are college graduates, spare change. After all, they have tons of student debt and are underemployed in the soul-sucking exploitation machine called “the gig economy.” 

In their pursuit of changing the world, they’re just like Thomas, Europa’s 16-year-old cybernetic son with an IQ of 420. He’s the smartest person in the room. Always. He always has the right answer, right away. He and his high school robotics team are starting their own company to build autonomous surgical robotic teddy bears. They envision a glorious future when the streets are full of scalpel-wielding teddy bears, marching forth to…to…to remove appendixes, I guess.

Thomas wants them to build in strong privacy controls, but they’re refusing. They say it will take too long and be too expensive. And besides, the First Robotics Championships don’t grade the competitors on privacy.

Thomas groans and goes back to his bedroom to sulk. And he never persuades anyone of anything, even though he’s right. Because what he hasn’t yet realized is that being right has nothing to do with being taken seriously.

Don’t Start by Being Right

If you want to be taken seriously, don’t start off trying to prove you’re right. No one cares. No, really. No one cares. When someone on the internet argues with you and tries to prove they’re right, do you care? Of course not. In fact, if you disagree, you don’t care that they’re right. You only care that you’re right and they’re wrong. Welcome to the Human Brain: once we believe something, when our belief is challenged, we try to discredit the challenger. We don’t care if the challenger is right.

If you’re the challenger and you're trying to change people’s minds, being right is wrong.

Don’t Be Righteous

“But my concerns are more important!” cries Thomas, with a degree of angst possible only for a 420-IQ teenager. “They don’t understand the deep implications for democracy of autonomous surgical teddys unaccompanied by strict privacy protocols. That makes them bad, while I am committed to the forces of good, and am the only one trying to do right.”

OMG, Thomas, do not say that to your group. If being right is wrong, being righteous is deadly. If you want to damage your case beyond repair, just get righteous about it. Saying “I’m right!” challenges beliefs. But being righteous challenges their identity. It’s like saying “I’m right!” with a nice, thick layer of “plus I’m smart, attractive, and moral, while you’re a brain-challenged ugly duckling.”

Persuasion Starts with Identity

Instead understand that persuasion lies in emotion, not logic. When someone feels listened to and valued, when they feel affirmed and secure in their own identity, then they’ll consider adopting your ideas.

Self-affirmation theory tells us that when people feel secure in themselves, they’ll be more open to new ideas. 

So start your campaign by asking people about themselves. What’s important to them? Why do they hold their current opinions? You need to ask with genuine curiosity, and be open to the answer. At this stage, you just want them to feel grounded in their own sense of identity. 

Listen for Criteria

While they’re talking, listen for words that represent their values or decision-making criteria. 

Thomas asks his workgroup, “Tell me what’s important to you about this project.” His teammates say, “Surgical teddys will revolutionize child rearing!” and “Getting our robot done fast will help us win the competition.” He doesn’t try to argue or engage their points intellectually, he just listens for what’s important to them, while letting them get grounded in their own values.

The values in his teammates’ statements: revolutionizing child rearing, speed of development, and winning the competition.

Double-Check Understanding

Next, double-check your understanding by repeating back the values and concerns that you heard. 

“It sounds like revolutionizing child rearing, finishing fast, and winning are your top concerns?”

If they cringe, throw up their hands in the sign of a cross, hiss fire at you, and proclaim, “No! You are wrong you spawn of absolute evil!” then you’re probably off the mark. Ask, “Then can you help me understand?” and go back to listening for values.

Take Deep Breaths

Now they’re secure in their identity, it’s time to introduce your ideas. But first, make sure you’re centered and calm, yourself. Take three deep breaths, and think about what your values are around the thing you’re trying to persuade them of. This grounds you in your identity, which will keep you open-minded, too.

Reflect and Add

Finally, reflect back their values and add on your own. You’re not agreeing to do what they want, you’re just reflecting that you’ve heard.

“You’re concerned about revolutionizing child rearing, finishing fast, and winning. I’m also concerned about privacy and how we can integrate it. Would you mind if we explore that?”

When people feel secure, they're more open.

You’re asking for permission to explore. If they don’t want to, you won’t waste your time banging your head against their brick wall. But if they agree, that’s the start of a commitment to hearing you out.

The more they spoke, the more Thomas’s teammates began to realize that privacy was important. Not only did it show respect for the users of the Surgical Teddy, but it made the product HIPPA-compliant, thus opening up the possibility of being funded by insurance. Once again, a business does the right thing...for the wrong reason.

Thomas may change the world through Teddy bears. But all the same principles apply whether you want your team to consider your ideas, or whether you want the world to value your ethnic identity. It isn’t fair that we have to persuade and listen to people when our answers are right, or when we’re already getting the short end of the stick. But it’s reality. 

To change the world, connect emotionally: first, ask and listen to them. Not because you care, but because it grounds their identity so they can listen to you. But also, try caring. It’s good. Notice their values and criteria, and reflect those back. Then gently add your own and invite them to a discussion. You never know where you’ll end up, but whether you're millennial, Gen Z, Gen X, or Boomer, you’ll have a much greater chance of making change. Social. Political. Or spare.


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About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.