Opening Closed Minds
Getting Past an Initial "No"
Imagine this scenario: you've spent weeks putting together a proposal to present to your company's senior executive team.
Your goal is to convince them that donating money each quarter to a charitable cause would not only help the company's image with customers, but also improve team morale. You're passionate about the issue, and you're confident that once your presentation is finished, they'll be "sold."
When the time comes, you speak from your heart and give them several facts that prove your argument. You also present examples from other successful companies in your industry that currently give to charity on a regular basis.
When you're done, however, you're shocked and discouraged when the CEO rejects the idea without even discussing it with the rest of the executive team. When you ask why, she tells you that it's just too expensive, despite the evidence you presented that shows a positive financial return.
What happened here? You thought you would be successful, but it seems as if the CEO had made up her mind before you even started talking. So how can you avoid situations like this?
All too often, we can face these circumstances in the workplace. The people to whom we're talking don't really listen, because our idea goes against their beliefs, or their current way of thinking.
Dealing with closed minds doesn't have to be frustrating. With some patience and understanding – and with a few sales techniques – it is often possible to open someone's mind to a new way of thinking.
In this article, we explain why some people close themselves to new ideas, and we offer techniques that you can use to try to open their minds.
Why People Close Their Minds
Most of us are closed-minded about something, whether we realize it or not. We hold onto a particular issue, idea, or practice – and we can't be convinced that there are possible improvements, or better alternatives. Our ears may listen to opposing arguments or viewpoints, but our minds remain fixed, certain that the other person is wrong and we're right.
Why do we behave this way?
It's human nature to "follow the path of least resistance." In other words, it's often easiest to think in familar, comfortable ways. If we challenge ourselves to examine other ideas or practices, we might have to change. For many people, change is too uncomfortable, so they close off the possibility of thinking in a new way.
See our article on Change Management to learn more about the change process, understand why people resist change, and find out how to help them through it.
A second, perfectly valid reason is that closing our minds allows us to move forward. If we believe something to be certain, we can then move forward and build on this, rather than endlessly going over the same ground. (In fact, the two causes may be linked – people may have thought about this change already and decided that another way of doing things is better.)
Opening a Closed Mind
First, make sure that you're right to want to push on with the change – after all, your proposals may be flawed, and the person who's resisting you may be correct to resist. In our example, the CEO may be right to turn your suggestions down, for reasons you're not aware of, and you may be foolish to push too hard.
However, if it's right to push on, there are several ways to open a mind that seems to be closed to new ideas. It's important to realize, however, that it's usually best to go slowly with people. Don't expect others to change overnight. If you proceed slowly, going step by step, you might have better luck bringing them to your way of thinking. Do these things:
- Ask others to keep an open mind. Before you start a discussion, ask the other person to consider your views seriously, prior to making a decision. This may seem simple, but it can be effective. Most of the time, speakers don't ask for the undivided attention and open consideration of others. But if you ask, listeners will be less likely to reject your ideas before you've finished talking.
- Present strong evidence. Back up your argument or position. People are usually more receptive to facts and figures versus broad, general, unsubstantiated statements. For example, telling your team that a new process will increase their productivity is a generalization. But tell them that a new process will save them two hours of paperwork every week – and they may pay attention, no matter what their doubts are.
- Discuss the alternative. If you're trying to persuade people to take one course of action, then describe what will happen if they choose the alternative. Your goal is to point out the potential negative results of the other options, rather than convince them of your way.
- Consider your timing. When there's a real sense of urgency or pain, people are often much more willing to listen to new ideas and consider change. For example, you'll find it easier to talk about budget cuts when the company is facing a huge deficit, not when there's a surplus. And it's easier to persuade people that product quality needs to improve when you start to lose customers, not when sales are strong. (That said, sometimes you may need to look far forward, and act accordingly. Just be aware that it will be difficult to persuade people of something that goes against their current experience.)
- Focus on benefits to the other person. People usually want to know what benefits they can expect to see for themselves. How is your idea, argument, product, process, or business strategy going to make their lives better? Why should they care? Remember the AIDA mnemonic that advertisers use: capture people's Attention, grab their Interest, create Desire, and cause them to take a specified Action.
- Present your idea as a small change, not a major one. Find out what the other people are comfortable with, and then describe your argument as a small shift or modification to their current way of thinking or doing things – rather than a completely new idea or major change. This helps them "ease into" the idea. It's a slower, step-by-step approach to convincing them of your position. If the size of change seems smaller, people tend to be more open to it. Here's an example: if someone asks you to rewrite a report completely, you're going to feel frustrated, and you might reject the suggestion. If, however, you're told that the report just needs revising in a particular way, then you'll probably be more open to making the changes.
See our article on Powers of Persuasion for more dos and don'ts.
Keeping Your Own Mind Open
Opening the minds of others is one thing, but you should also ensure that you're open to new ideas as well. If you want others to consider your views objectively, make sure you do the same for them. Try the following tips to keep an open mind:
- Don't decide too fast. When someone presents something new to you, give yourself at least 30 minutes, if you can, to think it over before making a judgment. The longer you give yourself, the more objective you're likely to be. To understand more about avoiding this common decision-making problem, see our article on The Ladder of Inference.
- Be aware of how your relationships affect your judgment. For example, you may be great friends with one team member. You're very comfortable around her, so chances are high that you'll agree with what she says, perhaps without fully listening to her position. But be careful not to agree with something that, under other circumstances, you might reject. The opposite is also true – you may not like someone, but that doesn't mean that everything he says is a bad idea. Be fair, and consider ideas equally.
- Really listen. People often prepare their opposing arguments while the other person is still speaking – especially when it's a difficult topic. If you do this, you simply close your mind to the possibility that the other person might have something valuable to offer you – in the form of a new idea or new way of doing things. Stay open-minded by listening with your undivided attention. You'll have plenty of time for counterarguments after the other person finishes talking.
Convincing others of a new idea, technique, or practice isn't always easy. Most people don't like change, so going slowly is usually the best way to win them over. Ask others to keep an open mind – this is usually the easiest way to ensure that they seriously consider your ideas. But make sure you do the same for them. Constantly challenge your own assumptions and ideas, and give others your undivided attention when they speak with you.