How To Change People’s Minds

Facing resistance in the workplace can be challenging and frustrating. Let’s look at this example:

“These conversations are driving me nuts,” said Liz, “we‘ve got major business opportunities in France and Turkey and no-one there to get it going.  I speak Spanish, Turkish and French but my boss only wants to send me to Spanish-speaking countries.”

“What’s his reasoning?” I enquire.

“He wants me to concentrate on Spain.  That’s as much as I ever get from him. I wouldn’t care, but all the other projects are now being managed by someone else.  It’s just so frustrating.  Boring, in fact.  There’s no sense in it.”

When we face resistance at work it can spill-over to influence many different behaviours and relationships.  Ultimately this can be very damaging.  Using our communication skills is the key to addressing this issue, so how can Liz break through such resistance?

Why do we face resistance at work?

According to a survey of Fortune 500 executives, resistance is the primary reason that change fails in organizations. In a similar survey conducted by Deloitte Consulting, 80 percent of the CIOs surveyed stated resistance as the main reason for the failure of technology projects: not a lack of skill or resources, but that soft touchy-feely human reaction of resistance.  Such opposition in the workplace can be grouped into three levels:

Level 1 – Based on lack of Information

This is low-grade resistance where there’s no hidden agenda.  People are opposed to an idea for any number of reasons: lack of information, disagreement with the idea itself, lack of exposure, or confusion.

What this could mean for Liz: maybe Liz’s boss doesn’t have enough information about the opportunities in these other countries? Or maybe Liz’s boss doesn’t know she has these language skills which could be put to better use?  There is the possibility that Liz doesn’t yet realise how good the opportunity is, and it’s her internal resistance that she needs to overcome.

Level 2 – Based on personality and vested interests

Level 2 is very common, based as it is on an emotional reaction to the change as opposed to a rational one.  Consequently, even with the right information, it’s vested interests or personal dislike that forces the opposition.

What this could mean for Liz: does the boss feel that Liz’s progression could undermine him?  Does he just dislike her, preferring to give the opportunity to someone with whom he has more of a connection? Building rapport up, down and around your organisation is a vital factor in influence skills training and communication skills training. Here’s how to do it before you even speak. 

Level 3 – Based on environmental issues

This level concerns external factors such as the economy, the company structure, process or political climate.

What this could mean for Liz: the economy doesn’t bode well for development in certain areas.  As a result, this is an external factor beyond Liz’s control.

Understanding how to overcome resistance in the workplace

None of these levels are insurmountable, not even where there’s a personality clash.

There are methods we can use to overcome these different levels of resistance, through five channels of influence that can work independently or in combination together.

These channels are:

1. Direct Influence:

You have direct contact with the person you’re influencing. It’s their stance that you want to change.

What to be aware of: how assertive you need to be will depend on the characters and contexts involved.  Body language, facial expression, intonation and verbal language will have an impact on how your message is received and understood and, therefore, whether it has the desired effect.

How you frame your rationale also has an impact.  One successful structure I use in Communications Training and Presentation Skills training, to have your ideas taken on board, is the PROEP, outlined here.

2. Indirect Influence:

Here, the influence you have is through someone else.

What to be aware of: an independent voice that conveys your message in their own way can have a positive impact.  Ask yourself who has the ear and trust of the person you’re influencing?  Can you also trust them?  You don’t want your messages twisted by the messenger.  There needs to be consistency even if the way the communication is relayed is different.

3. Syndicated Influence:

This is similar to Indirect Influence, except you have different people/groups affecting the decisions.

What to be aware of: ensure these different parties are all giving the same message, even if it’s in different ways.

4. Collaborative Influence:

You team up with others to present the message from different angles.

What to be aware of: again, trust is an issue here. You want to make sure the individual with whom you’re collaborating is genuinely supportive of your message.  If they’ve a different approach from yours, it could still work in your favour but ensure their support is sincere and factually correct. The same message in different packaging could cause the penny to drop.

5. Remote Influence:

You need do nothing. The situation changes because of external factors that impact on the actions of others.

What to be aware of: the proof of the pudding is in the seeing.  When environmental changes become obvious, you need say nothing.  Media reaction, the demise or rise of a project, the fact that a product is flying off the shelves, are all tools for influence.  It’s a case of being patient and sitting it out.

Influence and Time

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

The process of changing someone’s mind can be a slow burn, so don’t expect influence to be an axe through the wall.

It could happen in a minute or over days, weeks, months or years. Sometimes you need to plant a seed and watch it grow.

However, by applying these influence techniques, in isolation or by combining them, there’s an increased chance of having the impact you intend.

Changing someone’s mind like this forms a part of my communications skills training.  If you think this could benefit you, contact me here to see how I can help you or your people become Communication Ninjas!

This article was originally published in August 2011 and updated in August 2023.



  • Roger Colmer says:

    Poor Liz, she seems to be struggling to accept the decision of her boss/the organisation. Having had a full and satisfying international career myself I know only too well the emotion of an offer of an assignment which at first glance may not seem attractive. However, in my experience, all ventures have interesting and surprising angles. Liz is not showing herself in a good light with the “boring” outburst. Sometimes, head down and delivering first class results can lead to greatly improved and increased opportunities. Perhaps she should look at the Corporate Business plan and learn how the international ventures stack up in terms of importance to the company and future developments – she may be surprised!

    • Alison says:

      Ah! Roger, yes: she could start by asking a few questions and I do think being more proactive would be the way to go. I think many people feel that they’re ‘trapped’ in a situation though, just because they can’t get what they want, even senior directors of financial institutions (from where this example stems!).

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