"Such is the state of life, that none are happy but by the anticipation of change: the change itself is nothing; when we have made it, the next wish is to change again. The world is not yet exhausted; let me see something tomorrow which I never saw before." (Samuel Johnson)
"There's more change going on now than ever before in history—and it is very upsetting." (Political speaker)
We are of two minds about change. It is normal—and traumatic. It is eagerly embraced—and bashfully avoided. It is inherent in life—and life's greatest annoyance. When shopping for gadgets, we are avid for something new; we want change. When shopping for ideas, we want the tried and true; we want no change.
The earliest philosophers had trouble with change. Some claimed there was nothing but change; all was flux. Others said change was a mere illusion; all was fixed. Nowadays, the argument is universal. Some say, "Don't expect me to be the same tomorrow!" Others say, "That's the way I am and it can't be changed!" We think of change as fundamental and inescapable, but also difficult and scary, but also challenging and fun, but also false and pointless.
Minds are stubborn things, we say, and resist change above all. I assume I will never change my mind unless I am compelled by inescapable fact. I want to be steadfast in my convictions—without being hide-bound. I want my convictions to be strong as a rock—but not set in stone. I don't want my mind to be incapable of change. I want never to change for a silly reason, and never to refuse change if my life is at stake. I don't want to lose the mental skill of knowing when to change.
Underlying every other issue in life is the issue of mental skill. Learning to cope means learning mental skill. A better job requires more mental skill. Enjoying new thrills means learning new mental skills. Because physical actions are controlled by mental actions, physical skills are useless without mental skills.
I always assume that you are reluctant to change your mind. But are you? Do you feel you have sufficient mental skill to handle anything that might happen? Would a new skill learned, or an old skill polished, let you face the future with more confidence? Do you think it is possible to have too much mental skill?
Our two minds about change are really one mind confusing two different things: what we think and how we think. A mind that changes convictions too easily is a mind that is uncertain of itself. In order to stop changing the what, it needs to change the how. It needs to strengthen the process of arriving at convictions. To be more certain, improve mental skill. To certify the what, refine the how.
Once you understand volition, you know that denying it would prove it. So your mind will never change about volition. In the same way, one could never find reasons to discard reason. It is such basic convictions that are really meant when people talk about the futility of changing minds. Such convictions form the basis of social cooperation; they are involved in studying persuasion, but not in practicing it. The purpose of persuasion is exactly to avoid compromising principles held in common.
If a man declares, "On that my mind is made up, and will never change," he is declaring a principle held in common and not subject to persuasion. If that is not the case, then the obvious question is: "How will you avoid changing? Life will go on, facts will come to light. How will you stay certain?" A good persuader will listen carefully to the answer. It will tell him how to improve at least one of the two minds involved.
Since the world is not yet exhausted, I might see something tomorrow that I never saw before. The question is, will I have the mental skill to handle it? The only way to ready myself for change is to practice change. The only way to improve my mind is to change it.
Mentally active minds are always changing. When we talk about "open" minds, that's what we mean: active minds. New ways of thinking are being tried out, adopted, discarded. The active mind is changing because it is growing.
A "closed" mind, mired in passivity, does not fear change; it longs for change. It longs to get rid of its fear of the new and challenging. It lacks confidence in its mental skills, and in its ability to learn mental skills. It pretends that mental skill comes from birth, not practice. But it grabs for a skill as for a branch over quicksand. What keeps minds from changing is never reluctance, but lack of a method for change. Persuasion changes minds by providing the method.
Persuaders sometimes look for the "universal motivator," the motor of change. They overlook the one that stares them in the face, because they assume changing a mind means changing what it thinks rather than how. The issue of mental skill is universal, because it is directly tied to the issue of life and death. Everyone is well aware that to improve life one must improve the ability to live it. No amount of psycho-babble can obscure the obvious fact that it is better to be smart than stupid. To be conscious of being conscious is to face the issue of mental skill.
In order to see what is going on in persuasion, one must acknowledge that convictions come from a process of thought. They do not result from an act of faith. Blind faith is, by definition, not subject to change. When a true believer in blind faith sees minds readily changing so that they can cooperate with other minds, that seems a threat—until one remembers whose reason makes the change.
The reason used to persuade you is your own reason. If you have shut areas of your mind away from your own reason, then they are safe from persuasion. When persuasion changes your mind, it is because your mind sees the advantage of better methods. It is another way of saying that you live and learn. That's the trouble with blind faith: it lets you live, but not learn.
A mind devoid of all reason is not an object of persuasion, but of therapy. A mind with feeble reason participates in persuasion by learning methods to strengthen its reason. It learns what it wants to learn and needs to learn—skill.
Persuasion is social cooperation and the division of labor applied to reasoning. It operates to improve thinking skills in exactly the same way that cooperation on the job operates to improve working skills. I get my way when I can show that my way works better; you get your way the same way. We use other's methods as our own, with our own improvements. Our minds are always changing for the better without losing their individuality.
"I tried to tell them that the water was too cold to swim in, but they were determined to swim, and they would not change their minds—until they jumped in. Then they couldn't get out fast enough."
In that example, minds that would not change did change. Exhortation did not do it, but demonstration did. To learn how to change minds, observe what does change them.
When a work of fiction changes minds, the reason is that it provides a demonstration. It tells what people did, and how it turned out. If the people seem real, the demonstration seems real. As a persuader, you have every advantage over a story. You can demonstrate in the flesh results of new ways of looking at things. You can add two powerful influences together: reason and example. You can point out a better mental method for reaching a common goal, and show the method in action.
When people claim that persuasion never changes minds, they limit persuasion artificially not only to talking, but to fast-talking. No mind will change to indulge your wishes; it will change to handle reality better. If persuasion is something you do to others, then it never changes minds. If persuasion is mental adjustment to achieve a goal, then it normally changes minds. When you show someone a better way to get something, then not just methods of thought change, but as a result, conclusions change.
Persuasion is not for the lazy. Before you can change other minds, you must change your own. You must develop the skill of asking basic questions and identifying the essentials of what people tell you. You use those skills to identify common goals. Then you must be proficient at explaining and demonstrating your way toward the goals. You must practice the mental skills that you preach. In advocating logic, you must be logical. In advancing reason, you must be reasonable.
Having reached the essence of persuasion as influence by means of reasoned cooperation, we can investigate what this understanding means for particular areas in which persuasion is used. Where else to start but politics?
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