The importance of state in changing minds – and four ways to work with it

I keep coming back to Seth Godin’s article ‘I changed my mind yesterday‘, about how hard it is to change people’s minds when they have already decided and are determined not to change. I briefly blogged about it back in 2005 (Seth Godin on changing minds), but it deserves a bit more consideration – and now I think I can add something to Seth’s original thoughts.

Seth describes how he was at the airport on standby, desperately needing to make his meeting in Buffalo. When someone ahead of him in the standby queue gets a seat, he offers her $100 to give him her seat and take the next flight, only 90 minutes later. She turns him down without a thought, as do the next two people. He doesn’t get on the flight.

Why weren’t they open to this excellent offer of getting paid $65 an hour to read a novel? Because they’d had their hopes set on getting a seat on the earlier flight for an hour, and when they got it, they weren’t going to give that up. They’d already made their minds up.

As Seth says, the same thing happens in business.

“There’s no point whatsoever in having a meeting designed to elicit change if the attendees are insulated against changing their minds. Assuming you are surrounded by co-workers who are willing to try, it’s essential you go through exercises designed to loosen up the flip muscle.

“Ironically, the setting and tone of a conference room work to create precisely the opposite effect. Business meetings (and sales calls) are custom-made for failure. People walk in and are reminded (in an overwhelmingly Proustian way) that this is the place to stand your ground, this is the place where good arguments carry the day and build careers, and weak-kneed flip-floppers hurt their careers. When was the last time you changed your mind in a conference room?”

He suggests 2 ways you can combat this effect:

1. Pick an audience who are in the mood to ‘flip’ (change their minds) like people who have just moved to a new town, started a new job etc. This is excellent advice. Even more in a mood to ‘flip’ are people who are looking to change their job, buy a new car or whatever.

When I was looking to get out of a day job that I hated, back in 1992 (it was in IT since you ask), I responded to an ad in a newspaper that turned out to be for a hypnotherapy course (although it was headed ‘become a stress auditor’). It was a very expensive course (later on I found the content was pretty terrible too, but I had no standards to judge by back then) – but because I was definitely in the mood for a total career change, they didn’t have much trouble signing me up for it.

2. “Start a cascade of small flips”. Robert Cialdini’s excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion describes a psychology experiment by Freedman and Fraser’ in the mid-60’s found that householders were almost six times as likely to agree to have a large, ugly “Drive Safely” billboard on their front lawn if they had earlier been asked to display a three-inch-square “Be a safe driver” sign in their front window.

This was an example of Cialdini’s ‘Consistency Principle’. Displaying the small sign changed the self-image of the householders; once they’d put the small sign up, they started thinking  of themselves as public-spirited citizens and were much more likely to agree to the larger request in order to maintain consistency with their new self-images.

3. Now for what we can add to Seth’s two recommendations. As he says in the quote above, the conference room is a place where “people walk in and are reminded (in an overwhelmingly Proustian way) that this is the place to stand your ground”. If you’re familiar with NLP, you’ll have identified that ‘overwhelmingly Proustian way’ as an example of ‘anchoring’, where an event or a place becomes neurologically linked or associated with a particular emotional state – in this case, a determination to not be persuaded.

So, how do we ‘collapse that anchor’, or at least allow it to wear off? One way might be to remind people of when they were in a more open state, when they had just made or were about to make – when they first joined the company, the last time they were looking for a new car, when they moved to a new town or a new country.

People use examples, stories and metaphors all the time to get their point across, so why not design some of your stories to take your audience back to a time when they were ready to make a change? And if the story has a happy ending, so much the better.

NLP Exercises for Trainers

4. You could also use a quick rhetorical question, brain-teaser or physical activity to change the audience’s state. One example would be getting people to try crossing their arms the opposite way to how they normally do it (full description of this exercise, along with 127 others, in The Trainer’s Pack of NLP Exercises).

You may have some other ways of helping your audience to get into a more open mindset. Why not share them by adding a comment below? Go on, blow your own trumpet!

© 2011 – 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Rebecca Brenda Klug

    In my late 20s, long before I had heard of NLP, I was doing jury service. An early vote showed that 8 thought the defendant to be guilty. I was one of the 4 who were not convinced. And after listening to one of my fellow jurors who had some relevant expert knowledge, I was prepared to change my vote to that of guilty. That left 3 and the judge had said he would, at this stage, take a majority (10-2) verdict. So I suggested we ask the 3 for the reasons why they thought he was innocent. Two of the jurors gave opinions around never trusting the police (!!), but the third juror rounded on me and said, "Well, I'm not weak-minded like you – I never change my mind." So that was that then – no amount of reasoning made any difference and we were soon after dismissed as a hung jury!!

  2. Andy Smith

    Thanks Rebecca – what a great illustration! Fortunately, most people only go into 'not open to change' occasionally, rather than making it part of their identity.

    The more the world changes around that juror, the more bad decisions they will make and the more problems they will find themselves with, because they won't be open to new information and feedback.

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