Influencing the Difficult (or ‘Impossible’) to Convince

Feb 19, 2014 | Cognitive Patterns, Influence/Persuasion, NLP in Media, Sales, Therapy/Coaching | 0 comments

All of us have, at one time or another, attempted to influence another person, to no avail.  It’s a universal experience to walk head-first into unresponsive stubbornness, while “influencing the difficult.”

Many of us have personally experienced what it’s like in those situations, to try to restate what we’ve said.  Some of us have even personally experienced the definition of insanity (trying again, to tell them the same thing, the same way, repeatedly).  Maybe you’ve even tried using a louder voice!

We’ve all tried to convince the inconvincible.  But doing so isn’t necessarily as futile as most people think it can be.

NLP can enable you to find amazing ways of influencing the difficult or seemingly inconvincible.

Let’s begin with a usually innocuous example in business, and then graduate to more extreme examples.

1.  When people just “give up” trying to complete something, in a work environment.

At a workshop earlier this year, I was running a discussion exercise, and one particular pair of people just weren’t getting anywhere.  They weren’t communicating well.  It was like watching two competing rhythms just failing to synchronize.  I walked over, smiled, and asked if there was something I could do to help them engage in the requested exercise more effectively?

One of them began chuckling while standing up, and said “We’re just not agreeing on what we’re supposed to be getting from this exercise, so we haven’t started yet.  I think I’ll take a coffee break.  I don’t think it’s us, though.  Mercury is in Retrograde.”

Have you ever heard the phrase “Mercury Is in Retrograde?”

People often use this catchphrase to explain how, why, and when, things simply go wrong.  They often use it at the moment of giving up or walking away.

It’s the ultimate ‘get out of jail free’ card for misunderstandings. “It’s not my fault, or your fault, all because ‘Mercury is in Retrograde.’ “

I’m not going into detail about what it means, here.  If you want to know more, and explore if there’s validity to it or not, here’s a link to a google search for the phrase.  (opens in a new window.)

Lots of people use these powerlessness excuses… that make influencing their mindset difficult.

I expect to hear these sorts of phrases from massage therapists, astrologers, acupuncturists, enthusiasts of the “law of attraction” and other such folks.

I’ve also heard it from more “vanilla” walks of life, including professionals like financial advisors, vice presidents, chiropractors, lawyers, and even one surgeon.

It’s arguable as to whether those ‘vanilla’ professionals were being facetious or not when saying “Mercury is in Retrograde.” And if you argue that there’s no such thing, sometimes people will downplay their belief in the statement, and pretend to have been using the phrase in jest. Others will stand by their belief, no matter what you’ve said to change their mind.  ‘Because Mercury is in Retrograde, there’s no point starting something new.’

Remember, for the moment, that phrases like this are often used at the moment when people are giving up their power (or at points in their thinking process where they stopped investigating).  We’ll come back to this in a bit.

2. Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debated Creationist Ken Ham, Feb 5, 2014.

Now we get to a more intense example.  Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”) decided to engage in a several hour televised debate, with Ken Ham (a Young Earth Creationist), on Creationism vs. Evolution.  On the one hand, the Bible.  On the other hand, massive quantities of scientific evidence.  Ostensibly, the debate was between the idea that God created the Earth and Man, a few thousand years ago, and the idea that the Earth, life, and ultimately humanity, evolved over millions of years.

Evolutionists believe Bill won the debate by a mile.  What is ‘blind faith’ when stacked up against vast quantities of fully upheld scientific data?

Yet from the Creationist perspective, the Creationist won. Because they entered the debate with an unassailable faith in a document and in their beliefs. Scientific evidence didn’t matter; it held no weight over their perspective.

Some would say that just getting the debate in the public eye was a win for the Creationist perspective.  Some would say if Nye could get Ham to ignore data and blindly hold the Bible up in response, that would be a win for the Evolution perspective.  It’s probable that both Nye and Ham weren’t actually expecting to change each other’s minds. I believe that…

Neither expected to convince the other; they were both aiming to influence the swing votes.

There are many Creationists, but not that many Young Earth Creationists.  The vast majority of people (even people of faith) rely on reason and science more than faith alone in this debate between Evolution and Creationism. Also, it’s not so black and white between the two extremes of Evolution and Young Earth Creationism.  Why?  Because there is a third common belief right in between the two, where some people believe that human beings evolved, and God played a role in directing that.  But they don’t believe that both the planet, and human beings were created in less than 10,000 years.  And then, there are other shades of gray in between as well.

The statistics differ significantly from poll to poll, country to country, and demographic to demographic, so I won’t quote statistics.  Suffice it to say, there are extremists in both camps.  There are also many who hold strong beliefs that blend both views, and there are lots of people who just aren’t sure. This latter group are the swing votes, and they were the primary ‘targets’ for the debate.

If you’re only aiming to change the swing votes, then, fine.  That’s one route to take.

From an NLP perspective, however, we know we CAN go further. We might even say that if you actually want to convince the ‘inconvincible’, then debating skills meant only for the swing votes won’t be strong enough.  We have to go first, and we have to go further.

Update (October 2014):  Pope Francis has set the record straight on Young Earth theories.  He says “Evolution and the Big Bang are real, and not inconsistent with Creationism.”  By implication, Ken Ham, if he persists with his blind faith in a young earth, is now considered a heretic by the Catholic church!  Go ahead, laugh — we did!

3. Watching a Government Shut Down

Now we come to a much more extreme example, that of a complete shutdown of negotiations at any level.  They even happen at a governmental level, such as the October 1-16, 2013 US Federal Government shutdown.

When people can’t compromise, shutdowns happen.  Then they try to use what’s known as “hostage patterns” to get their way.  It almost never works (and on the rare occasions when it does, the consequences are usually dire for everyone).

Shutdowns happen whenever someone shows up at a negotiating table with false intentions. They’re pretending to have a willingness to compromise, but ultimately, full of deceit, hoping to influence the difficult mindset they encounter.  When their behavior proves afterwards that they were really unwilling to budge from their idealized position, to begin with — that’s ripe for a shutdown.

It’s been happening increasingly in American government affairs because there are fewer and fewer moderates in American politics today.  This occurred because our political system has squeezed out most moderate liberals and conservatives.  Now we have mostly strongly liberal or conservative, with a little extreme liberal or conservative.  Arguably, it serves the parties in the political system very well. It also serves the media that feeds the American media spectacle (and the uber-wealthy magnates that run the media), but it doesn’t serve grass-roots American communities in the least.  This is part of what led to disorganized movements like “Occupy Wall-Street.”

The only way to ensure we prevent shutdowns, is for cooler heads to prevail, and for moderates to regain power.

Or is there another way?  Could learning greater cognitive and behavioral flexibility enable an alternative solution for influencing?  The difficult ones may respond to unusual strategies.

So how can we Convince the Inconvincible?

Always remember the most flexible element in any system wins.  If you want to influence the difficult, you’ve got to be more flexible than they are.

I’m guessing Bill Nye wasn’t really interested in proving Evolution to a Creationist (and apparently, neither is Pope Francis!).  I hope he knew, fundamentally, that he was unlikely to shift the opinion of a Young Earth Creationist. He presented mountains of unassailable data, and in response, the Creationist held up the Bible. There’s no convincing someone whose faith trumps reason and data every time, if your primary weapon is reason.  The only way to have done it was to find a way to shake his faith, using the Creationist’s own rules.  Maybe the pope will have been successful!  Time will tell.

And we know the Creationist isn’t likely going to convince Evolutionists that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago, or anyone who firmly believes dinosaurs roamed the planet.  He certainly didn’t convince the pope.

Again, both were trying to convince “Swing votes.”  Ken Ham was likely hoping to share his mission with people who have doubts and therefore could be convinced.  He may also have wanted to be able to say he shared the stage in such a debate, and that the debate actually got public television airtime.  Bill Nye was likely hoping to reduce the number of Creationist believers out there.  Polls show that often, when young Creationists go to college, their beliefs in Creationism diminish.  Bill took the approach in the debate of educating people with incontrovertible data.  Great for convincing swing votes.

But I think either of them or both of them could have gone further.

The only way for the opposing sides of that debate to have impacted the other view, would be to “enter the other mindset completely”, and then find a way to SPOIL it.  The biggest marks go to Pope Francis for doing that better than anyone else could have.

Sometimes change to influence stubbornness is best introduced from outside of a system.

When the inside of the system is open to fresh ideas, that can work a charm.  For change from outside of a system to work well and easily, the system has to have, built-in, a desire for new knowledge and new evidence and new approaches.

Science only partly welcomes this.  If Ken Ham had provided ANY form of new evidence, science would have welcomed it.  And Ham could have said he convinced Evolutionists to consider Creationism.  But… he utterly failed to do this.

The question of what is inside or outside science is a tough one.  If Ham had new evidence to present, would that be inside of science?  Or outside of science?  Presenting new hard data of any kind to an Evolutionist would actually be using the system, and using the system’s rules for drawing conclusions.  By contrast, FAITH is more outside the system of science.  Science doesn’t address questions of faith.  So we know that even Science isn’t actually open to data outside it’s currently acceptable ways of measuring data.  Science will not accept any faith evidence.

By contrast, often, businesses need help getting unstuck, using methods outside of their current knowledge base or skill-sets.  So they’ll hire experts or consultants outside of their areas of expertise.  They have to be open to that, to even consider that step.

Sometimes change to influence stubbornness is best introduced from inside of a system.

When the inside of a system (in this case, a belief system) is closed to fresh ideas, then the system evolves over time to develop self-protection.  Here, Ham’s belief system developed arguments and methods to protect itself from change introduced externally from other perspectives.  Just as the American Political system has evolved to protect from and squeeze out many moderate politicians.  This is one of the main functions of a cult, by the way — to defend against the external.  The result?  Change of any kind is only considered when its introduced by those already ‘inside’ the system.

In NLP, we’re taught that to optimally help someone change their minds, especially if there’s a potential for resistance, we need to begin by building a map of how they think.  We have to set aside our perspectives, our values and beliefs, and enter their world as fully as possible, as nonjudgmentally as possible.  We have to build a map of what that’s like, and look for the best possible hinge or leverage points for changing their views.  In other words, we look for things we know are true inside their map that we don’t actually plan to change, but that also enable them to add additional options.

We ask questions like, ‘If “I” believed that, with their values, beliefs and evidence, how would I most likely be convinced of a different possibility?’  Then we use these hinge points as pivots to alternatives.

When you more thoroughly and accurately enter someone else’s mindset… with behavioral and cognitive flexibility, then you become better able to change their model from the inside out.

Yes, NLP’ers would have done better in the Ham vs. Nye debate. An Evolutionist trained in NLP could have done better, if they had sufficient advance time, opportunity, and interest, in modeling a Creationists views thoroughly.  Then they’d have effectively figured out how to convince a Creationist that their perspective was untenable.

The key hinge points would revolve around this:

  1. Explore the Creationist’s most solid reliance on stories or phrases or claims in the Bible.
  2. Find where the Creationist was taking the Bible literally, vs where he was taking it figuratively.
  3. Then identify the specific reasoning that the Creationist used to determine when to take things literally vs figuratively.

Once you know those rules, it becomes just a research project to find inconsistencies according to those rules.

Then you engage in a process of getting the other person to admit to two sides of the same argument, repeatedly.

Essentially, you’d need to become a Creationist intent on toppling Creationism.  Only then, would you become able to poke holes in their system for interpreting the Bible.  That would end up cornering the Creationist with confusion, and they would then be attempting to defend their views real-time while having their beliefs restructured.  I have seen those sorts of responses happening in a multitude of contexts over the years — what it looks like when someone’s map is changing as they’re talking.  It causes the subject to backpedal, or restate things differently, stop mid-sentence, and more.  Naturally, it can be a huge wake-up call, to have one’s beliefs about the ultimate nature of the universe, suddenly be found insufficient or incorrect.

Alternatively, a Young Earth Creationist, if they were trained in NLP, could have modeled an Evolutionist, and then used the Evolutionist’s model to poke holes in Evolution using data and reason.

Frankly, a Creationist convincing an Evolutionist is a MUCH harder job than an Evolutionist convincing a Creationist.  Why?  Because the Evolutionary model IS already open to new or alternative data, so in effect, it’s evolved.  Creationism as a theory really hasn’t evolved.  Evolution’s been vetted over time.  Creationism isn’t open to vetting.  So there are far less holes in Evolution than there are in Creationism — though there are holes in both.

To model effectively, you have to metaphorically Open Your Eyes to absorb more perspectives, more ideas, more information. Any belief system that requires, metaphorically, Closing Your Eyes to new ideas… makes modeling inherently more difficult.

Preventing Shutdowns, Government and otherwise

A NLP’er would have been better able to bridge the gap between staunch liberals and conservatives, by more effectively entering into both belief systems, and looking for common ground, and finding even the smallest leverage points for compromise. More importantly, they’d likely have to hunt for leverage points that each side was not conscious of having – which only become apparent when one is thoroughly and effectively modeling the other side’s perspective.

I’m not saying preventing shutdowns in any negotiation is easy; I’m saying that to do so, we (and everyone, really) truly benefit from developing the ability to set aside our own perspective, and completely enter the other person’s model of the world. And only then, when we’ve done that well… can we find the optimal ways to change their minds in a way that improves things for everyone (or for the greatest number of people).

Now, interestingly, its also true that a number of politicians are trained in NLP, or more accurately, have explored books, cds, or videos of NLP.  Many politicians are just scraping the tip of the iceberg, and probably aren’t very good at it.  Even if they do get good at it, if politicians add great tools on top of selfish intentions and extreme beliefs, we just end up with even more annoying and pushy politicians.  By contrast, what if moderate politicians with great intentions were well versed in NLP from a lot of live training?  Wouldn’t they be increasingly able to achieve more effective compromises that everyone can happily live with?

Responding to “Mercury in Retrograde” and other Shirks of Responsibility

Let’s be clear. Regardless of the veracity of any belief in a phrase like this, when they utter it after things go awry, it most definitely is a shirk of responsibility. People are letting themselves off the hook.  Note that I am not critiquing whether or not people use this to make plans differently, in a pro-active way.  I’m talking about the reactive use of the phrase.

In every case, we have to weigh the value of ignoring or addressing these shirks directly or indirectly. I almost never question them directly, because even if they’re just having fun with the phrase, it just comes across as disrespectful and aggressive.

But optimally, get people to hoist themselves back on the hook, without them perceiving you as wielding the hook.  They reclaim their power by doing so, while re-taking responsibility.  Doing this elegantly, with NLP, is actually hard to notice.  In other words, if they notice the fact that ‘you’re doing something with intention’ when you do this, it wasn’t elegant.

Here are some examples of directly opposing it.

  • “That’s an utter crock.”
  • “Don’t tell me you believe in that…”
  • “Uh, no. It’s not because of some astrological anomaly. This one’s on you.”
  • Obviously these (and even gentler versions of these) are going to create an undesirable, defensive response.

By significant contrast, here are some NLP-based examples of indirectly challenging it, that enable people to shift away from shirking, and back to retaking responsibility?

“Some people feel Mercury in Retrograde is the cause of all kinds of weirdness. I know a lot of people felt that way until they decided to take charge of their future no matter what obstacles present, and found that no matter how much random weirdness occurred, it was still up to us to follow through on all our responsibilities and promises.”  (Feel, Felt, Found).

“I know that some part of you enjoys having fun with noticing prevalent patterns of chaos out there.  I also know there’s a stronger part of you that knows that no matter what occurs, the results you get are virtually always still a function of the decisions you make and the actions you take.” (reframe shirk as “noticing patterns.” This uses the ‘parts’ model, and focuses on action).

“It’s great to see that you chose not to dwell on that which you can’t control! So now, as you think about the things you can control, moving forward, what would be some of the first things you would do, next?” (reframing, redirecting to a stepwise process, time distortion patterns).

The above examples of communication are far more effective in enabling people to reclaim their power, retake responsibility, and move forward with intention.  They use a wide range of specific techniques or patterns that can be woven together for far more effective results, anywhere.

Sometimes I just ignore it when I hear people say “Mercury is in Retrograde.”

Let me be clear that I don’t have a strong opinion on the truth or lack of such. That’s not why I use it as an example.  Because I welcome people having the beliefs they choose to have, as opposed to the beliefs they were programmed to believe, from other people.

I use this as an example because in most cases, the result of using that phrase is that people are “giving up” any hope of having a strong influence over a situation.  It’s a helplessness pattern – and I do concern myself very strongly with enabling people to overcome things like that.

So if I hear it being used in jest, or to explain some outside circumstance that isn’t of much importance, I generally ignore it.

When I hear it being used as an excuse to shirk responsibility, I’ll often reply with one of my indirectly influential responses, above.  And to make it likely they’ll respond positively, I usually need to know something about their model of the world. If I want to help them change their perspective, I have to understand what it’s like inside their perspective.  The more I understand their perspective, the more accurately my suggestions will affect them.

Some Great Questions for Moving Forward

How are you currently communicating when dealing with seemingly-inconvincible people?

When other people shirk responsibility, how do you currently act after, or respond to those moments?

How often are you using these sorts of phrases as excuses to give up your power?

Could you potentially use these lessons to empower yourself, your customers or clients, and/or others in your workplace?

Want More Resources like this to Influence the Difficult?

Would you like more knowledge, skills, and tools for being able to convince the inconvincible?  Do get in touch for coaching, training, or home-study resources!  I’m confident we can make measurable leaps together, and I look forward to working with you!

author: Jonathan Altfeld