Have you ever been in a situation where you have a particular idea but you are failing to get traction?

So you go, ok, I’ll just have to explain it better, gather more information on this issue, and talk more about it and present it again and then people will support it.

You do that but nothing changes, your idea is still not getting the support you thought you would even if you have everything right.

The book The Catalyst: How To Change Anyone’s Mind by Jonah Berger dwells into why we fail to change people’s minds and what strategies we can actually use to shift people’s perspectives and attitudes on the issues that we care about.

It is about being catalyst, by enabling people to change their opinions and even mindsets by using specific strategies in the process.

Catalysts are about “changing minds by removing roadblocks and lowering the barriers that keep people from taking action” (p. 7).

Good news is that there are a set of insights and strategies you can harness in influencing and enabling people to move in a particular direction.


Pushing increases reactance 

One of the most common fails when it comes to trying to change people’s minds and behaviours is the belief that the harder you push, the faster you get change.

We push our point of view and idea, we give more information, and if we don’t get traction, then we push just harder and more because in the end we believe that people will bend and come around.

Yet, as Jonah notes, most individuals feel most empowered when they are free to choose which ideas and behaviours they support and that they are in control.

And most of us genuinely hate being told what to do:

“People have a need for freedom and autonomy. To feel that their lives and actions are within their personal control. That rather than driven by randomness, or subject to the whims of others, they get to choose” (p. 22).

When people are told what to do and which decision to make, which shoes or brand they must buy, or which behaviour they must change, the first psychological element that kicks in is called “reactance”.

Reactance is a state of mind where people feel that they no longer have the freedom to choose or are highly restricted in their capacity to do so.

Your idea, brand, product, or service might be amazing but if you are pushing people to adopt it without giving them an autonomous choice in doing so, the more you push, the less they even want to talk to you.

Instead of pushing, you need to find ways to enable agency: to set in strategies that give people a range of choice, actually address their real needs, and make sure that the feeling of agency is not constrained.


Strategies that enable guided choice 

The first four key strategies that are helpful in enabling people to shift their opinions and perspectives all focus on opening a conversation in a guided manner:

Provide a menu. Provide a set of options where you are guiding the choices available. For example, instead of asking your child “would you like to have a bath?”, ask them “would you like to have the bath now or later?”. Or asking your spouse “Would you like to have Mexican or sushi for dinner?” Choosing makes people feeling they have a say in the matter even if the options are restricted.

Ask, Don’t Tell. Asking questions is immensely powerful in making the other side to reflect on what is actually being asked. By having to think about the answer, they have cognitively less energy to counter argue your points or ideas but also they can take time to reflect as to what is being talked about and what they really think about the issue and why. Questions open up spaces for conversation and learning.

Highlight a gap. By making a gap clear between a behaviour that is not constructive and the person’s own behaviour, people are more willing to consider change. For example, Thailand’s Smoking Kid campaign has been described as one of the cleverest campaigns to reduce smoking. In the campaign, young kids with cigarettes approached smokers on the street for a light. Most smokers were appalled and the kids off by explaining how bad smoking was. The kids then gave the smokers a leaflet about quitting smoking with a help number that saw an immediate 60% increase of calls for help to quit. This simple act highlighted the gap between knowing about dangers of smoking and people’s own behaviour that was inconsistent with that knowledge.

Start with understanding. We often jump into conclusions, have a set direction or goal where we need to get to, and ask people to change and follow immediately. Yet, hostage negotiators start with understanding where the hostage taker is at. They want to first understand who the person is, what is motivating them, and then work through the issues with them rather than demanding for them to immediately let everyone go. Once you understand the context, aspirations and motivations, it is easier to have a joint conversation about the options available.

This is not about tricking people to change because tricks only last a short time and once people feel deceived, there is very little that can be done about building trust again.

These strategies are about providing opportunities for people to change, having them participate in the process, and owning the choices that they make in the process.


Making the costs of inaction visible 

Many of us are impatient with change and are looking for immediate results.

Yet, essentially any change involves both letting go and embracing something new:

“People are attached to the things they’re already doing. Whether it’s the product they own or beliefs they hold, the suppliers they work with or the initiatives they support. Catalyzing change isn’t just about making people more comfortable with new things; it’s about helping them to let go of old ones” (p. 83).

Embracing the status quo is always easier than changing your habits.

Change requires us to deal with uncertainties and also investing more time to master the new circumstances.

This relates to loss aversion, and how people weigh the pros and cons associated with any change.

Most of us put new things off because we calculate that the cost of learning a new software or changing to a new product is likely to cost us too much.

Yet, we are often unaware how much inaction is actually costing us right there and then, and by making the cost of inaction more visible and real can help us in making a shift e.g. how much time we are losing if we stick with our old routines rather than finding faster new solutions.

Many strategies highlighted in the book so far are very relatable also for such issues as how we communicate about adaptation to climate change.

Rather than just providing more information or trying to convince everyone how important it is to start thinking about the long-term impacts of climate change, we should focus on how we can collectively lower some of those barriers and obstacles that we see stopping such considerations.

As this book shows, there are a range of deeper cognitive factors at play in how people make decisions and the range of strategies available in having more directed conversations.

By dwelling more deeply into this literature can help us to consider these factors in our research but also in the way that we communicate what the adaptation challenge is at individual, community and other levels.