Trying to change somebody else’s mind can be an everyday challenge in government. First colleagues, as ideas and options are considered. Then superiors, perhaps even the minister. And finally the public.

Mostly, we do it wrong.

“We persuade and cajole and pressure and push,” as Wharton School professor Jonah Berger observes in his book The Catalyst. But even after all that strenuous effort, often nothing changes. People remain steadfast. 

That shouldn’t be a surprise. When you are pushed, how do you respond? Similarly, they dig in their heels and perhaps get irritated. It backfires. But our instinct, next time, is to apply the same tactic – push, push, push. 

Instead, Berger says we need to learn from chemistry. Left to itself, chemical change can take eons – algae and plankton turning into oil, for example, or carbon being gradually squeezed into diamonds. To facilitate change, chemists will use catalysts, special substances that lower the barriers to change. They alter the situation so it’s easier for chemical bonds to splinter and rearrange. Change happens — with less energy.

 So instead of pushing harder or trying to present a more convincing argument – and leading people to increase their defences – try to remove roadblocks and lower the barriers that keep them from taking action. Become a catalyst.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to trying to create change, people rarely think about removing roadblocks. When asked how to change someone’s mind, 99 per cent of the answers focus on some version of pushing. ‘Present facts and evidence,’ ‘explain my reasons,’ and ‘convince them’ are common refrains,” he writes in The Catalyst

“Sometimes change doesn’t require more horsepower. Sometimes we just need to unlock the parking brake.”

That involves understanding the five main roadblocks and figuring out how to unlock the parking brake in each case.  

The first roadblock is the likelihood that when people are pushed they will push back: Reactance, as he calls it. People have an innate anti-persuasion system. Indeed, one of the most significant, perverse results is that warnings become recommendations. Alcohol prevention messages have led college students to drink more. Jurors told to disregard inadmissible evidence might weigh it more heavily. 

The warnings boomerang because people have a need for freedom – autonomy and agency. They want to control their own lives. “In fact, choice is so important that people prefer it even when it makes them worse off,” he says. 

You therefore have to allow people to feel their own autonomy and agency to choose the change you propose. Get them to persuade themselves. In Florida, for example, 30,000 teens quit smoking not after government told them to cease but after it ran “truth” ads, such as one in which a magazine executive tells a teenager tobacco ads are accepted for publication because he’s in the business of making money. Outraged, the teens decided to quit of their own volition. 

One way to provide agency is to let people pick the path they prefer from a menu of choices. Another way is to ask questions rather than make statements – instead of arguing with you, they have to figure out the answer to the questions you pose. Another approach is to highlight a gap – a disconnect between their thoughts and actions, or a disparity between what they might recommend for others and what they do themselves.

“Before people will change, they have to be willing to listen. They have to trust the person they’re communicating with. And until that happens, no amount of persuasion is going to work,” he says.  

The second obstacle is people’s attachment to the status quo. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? People tend to buy the same brands they always have and donate to the same causes they’ve always supported. After heart bypass surgery or angioplasty to widen arteries people are told repeatedly by physicians to change their diets and lifestyles but only 10 per cent actually do. 

As a catalyst, in such situations you must help them to understand inaction is not as costless as it seems. It has its own downsides. Another approach – when the attachment to the status quo is very strong – is to burn the ships, as explorer Hernan Cortes did when he worried his crew might mutiny, returning to Cuba rather than following his incursion into Mexico. Car manufacturers do this when they stop making replacement parts for older vehicles.

Berger notes that Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave strategist in Britain’s Brexit referendum, was aware of loss aversion and knew he had to overcome the status quo preference to win. So he flipped the equation, making it seem like leaving was the status quo with the slogan “let’s take back control.”   

The third obstacle to consider is distance: If the new information you provide is within the recipients’ zone of acceptance, they’re willing to listen. But if it falls too far away, in the region of rejection, your communication will be ignored or rejected.

A study of 1,500 Twitter users found that when exposed to opposing viewpoints it didn’t make them more understanding and moderate, accepting some of the other argument, as was expected. “Exposure to opposing views didchange minds, but in the opposite direction,” Berger reports. Republicans became more conservative, developing more extreme views, and Liberals similarly shifted to the left.

Berger offers three solutions. The first is to find the moveable middle – the equivalent of swing voters in political elections, who are open to facts and arguments. When people aren’t in the middle – the distance to accepting your proposal is further – you need to ask for less. Dial down the size of your initial request so it falls within their zone of acceptance.  Finally you can find an “unsticking point,” switching to another dimension where there’s already agreement and building on that connection. Campaigners for transgender rights try to get people to think of discrimination they have faced and pivot back to transgender rights.

Change often involve uncertainty – the fourth roadblock that can stymie our efforts to go in new directions. Will your new idea, program, or service be as good as the old one? The uncertainty might make them less interested in changing or even halt their decision-making entirely. “It’s hard to know for sure, and this uncertainty makes people hit the pause button, halting action. To overcome this barrier, catalysts make things easier to try,” he says.

Everett Rogers, in his classic book Diffusion of Innovations, cited five attributes that explain the variance in how quickly things are adopted. The most important factor was “trialability” – the ease with which something can be tested or experimented with on a limited basis. You have seen the power of trialability when you opt for Dropbox’s free storage package or similar “freemium” computer offerings. You give it a test run. Similarly, try to reduce the up-front cost of signing on to your new ideas and programs. 

The fifth obstacle might be called “the translation problem.” When people get a recommendation they try to figure out – to translate – what it means for them. Somebody might suggest a new movie to you, and that requires you to figure out how it applies to you, given your own tastes. Greater numbers – more people recommending the movie – may tip the balance.

So when trying to propose change, look for reinforcements – corroborating evidence. “Multiple sources saying or doing the same thing solves the translation problem,” says Berger. Those multiple sources should not come from the same group or vantage point; that may make them seem redundant. And, of course, remember that not all sources are equal – some carry more weight. What might it be in this case? 

This may seem like pushing – an argumentative approach. But as with all of his suggestions, it’s softer, making the case by allowing the other person to come to their own conclusion. Cajoling and applying pressure – often our go-to techniques — doesn’t work. You need to become a catalyst.