How to change someone’s mind—in sales objections and beyond.

How do you change someone’s mind? The question has long baffled philosophers, educators, researchers, and leaders of all kinds—not to mention salespeople and customer service professionals. 

If you’ve ever dealt with someone who had a misguided assumption, irrational objection, or unsubstantiated complaint about your business, you know how challenging it is to talk them out of it. One reason we say “the customer is always right” is that it’s so dang hard to convince them they’re wrong.

But sometimes, the customer is wrong. Very wrong. And it’s in your—and their—best interest to change their mind. Maybe they’ve left a scathing, baseless review online that threatens your company’s reputation. Perhaps they’re dragging their feet about making a purchase decision due to an ill-informed belief about the value of your business. 

Whatever the case, here are a few tips for doing the impossible and persuading someone to change their mind.

Take time to listen.

Not every heated exchange is an argument or debate. At its core, the conversation might actually be an expression of emotions. Maybe the other person is upset because they feel they’ve been treated unfairly. Maybe their anger is rooted in an altogether different feeling, such as fear (e.g. fear of paying too much money) or confusion (confusion about what your business does, about how your products or services will make their life easier).

Let go of assumptions and meet the other person where they’re at, intellectually and emotionally. Only by taking the time to listen can you determine the real nature of the exchange and the issue at hand. Fortunately, listening is pretty easy—and it doesn’t need to be totally passive. You don’t have to sit there in silence while the other person rants at you. Ask open-ended questions. Look for opportunities to establish trust. Practice empathy. 

These sorts of active listening behaviors help dismantle hostility and transform the conversation into a collaborative one. Don’t think of it as changing someone’s mind (even if that’s exactly what you’re doing), but working with them through difficult emotions and reaching a mutual understanding.

Learn 5 ways to improve your active listening skills.

Let them talk.

Listening can also help you overcome arguments without much effort. Frustrating as it can be to sit back and allow someone to blather on when you know they’re ignorant or wrong, sometimes the best strategy you have is to let them talk—so they can hear themselves talk, and hear how little they know.

It’s called the “unread library effect.” Here’s how Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree, explains it:

“Leveraging the unread library effect means you encourage the other person to talk and by politely asking them questions, allow them to see their own ignorance. Instead of you battering them with facts, they lead themselves into doubt. Socrates would be proud. At the very least it often serves to moderate extreme beliefs because it’s humbling to realize you can’t really explain what your beliefs are based on. And it reduces hostility because you don’t have to throw those backfiring facts at them; you just ask sincere questions.”

In other words, as much you’re genuinely listening to the other person, you’re also quietly challenging their beliefs by putting them on the spot. 

Sneaky? Sure. Effective? You bet—just ask the top law schools.

Share your perspective—mindfully.

Ever tried couples therapy? Even if you haven’t, I bet you’re familiar with some of the following. Relationship counselors often advise their clients to do things like…

  • use “I” statements such as “I feel…” and “I believe…”
  • avoid blaming and using generalizing statements such as “you never…” or “you’re so…”
  • communicate their needs directly (“I need help with…”, “Would you be willing to…”)
  • stay aware of and respectful of the other person
  • pay attention to non-verbal cues such as eye contact, lip-biting, or fidgeting

The same suggestions apply to any kind of relationship, be it with a spouse, friend, parent, child, employee, customer, or prospect. When it’s time for you to talk, be honest and kind, and keep your thoughts centered on the person and conversation in front of you. 

For examples of this kind of approach in action, check out Reddit’s r/ChangeMyView forum—one of the few places on the internet where people engage in non-polarized conversation, and the subject of a Cornell University research study titled “Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions” (PDF). 

An article in Psychology Today discusses some of the study’s main findings, which anyone can learn from to improve conversations (emphasis added):

“By analyzing the forum, researchers found specific attributes that made it more likely original posters would change their minds. Participants who used different words compared to the original poster—a sign of introducing a new point of view—were most likely to change someone’s mind. Arguments using specific examples were also more likely to change someone’s mind.

Researchers found word choice to be an important factor. People who posted their original opinion using the word ‘I,’ signaling a personal belief, were more likely to change their minds compared to people who used the word ‘we’ in their posts, which signaled a broader viewpoint. People who responded by qualifying their arguments—using words such as ‘it may be the case’—were more persuasive than those who posted staunch opinions.”

The point is that there’s a right way and an—ahem—maybe not-so-productive? way to express thoughts that controvert another person’s beliefs. As with so many things in life, it comes down to the Golden Rule:

Communicate how you’d want to be communicated with.

Be flexible.

Keep in mind that convincing someone to change their mind is no easy feat. It takes time, patience, and mental fortitude—and it’s never a sure thing. To boost their mind-changing capacity, business leaders need to use not just one approach, but a multitude of angles and tactics for different conversations.

That’s according to Laura Huang, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. Together with research assistant Ryan Yu, Haung examined the conversational habits of dozens of executives, politicians, entrepreneurs, and other leaders. Huang and Yu discovered that turning a “no” into a “yes” starts with a thorough assessment of the situation, followed by a strategy shaped for the specific context and audience.

They write, in a recent Harvard Business Review article:

“[W]e observed, and then interviewed, more than 60 leaders who were trying to convince business associates and other constituents to change their minds on a course of action that they initially disagreed with. The leaders who were most successful in overcoming others’ skepticism were those who diagnosed the root of the fundamental disagreement before trying to persuade. They first asked themselves, ‘What’s driving my detractor’s resistance?’ These leaders often pinpointed which aspects of their arguments elicited the most pushback and the most emotional reactions. Then, depending on the answer, they approached the situation with one of the following three targeted strategies.”

The first strategy Huang and Yu identify is “the Cognitive Conversation,” where the leader uses objective reasoning and facts to change the mind of a detractor.

The second strategy is “the Champion Conversation,” through which someone convinces another person by “invest[ing] time in personally learning about and building rapport with them.”

The third strategy is called “the Credible Colleague Approach” and involves bringing in a trustworthy “peer or superior” whose presence “forces the detractor to disentangle who you are from what your argument might be and evaluate the idea based on its objective merits.”

These certainly aren’t the only tactics that work. The more ways you can think of to approach a conversation, the better-equipped you’ll be when difficulties and disagreements arise. And arise they will—conflicts with customers are a fact of doing business, especially online.

That said, you don’t have to spend your time and energy trying to change your customers’ minds. Let Ruby handle the challenging conversations for you. We’re experts at creating connections over the phone and online, via live chat. Our unique approach to customer service translates into happier customers, improved brand loyalty, and—ultimately—better business. I think we can all agree that’s a good thing.