Use This 17th-Century French Philosopher’s Trick to Change Your Prospects’ Minds

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Leslie Ye
Leslie Ye




At the risk of stating the obvious, sales is all about changing people’s minds. Unless your company has no touchless purchasing system, even the simplest deal you’ll encounter will involve some objections. Perfect prospects are more fantasy than reality.

Luckily, French philosopher Blaise Pascal has some advice for you.

You may be familiar with Pascal from his eponymous wager, which states that when it comes to religion, the potential benefits are so vast that the most rational choice humans can make is to subscribe to theism -- or suffer the consequences in a theoretical afterlife.

Regardless of how you view this conclusion, Pascal’s Wager is one of the first formal examples of decision theory -- the practice of identifying which choice among several is the best.

It makes sense, then, that the man who first codified the way we weigh our options would have something to say about how we can influence those deliberations.

In Pensées (Thoughts), a work by Pascal originally published in 1670, he writes:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false … People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

Basically, Pascal’s argument has two parts:

  1. To convince someone they’re wrong, you must first elucidate the areas in which they’re correct.
  2. Then, you should guide them to conclude their original opinion was wrong on their own.

It sounds nice, but I could write eloquently about why the earth is flat and it wouldn’t make me correct. However, an interview with University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Arthur Markham suggests that Pascal may have been onto something after all.

“One of the first things you have to do to give someone permission to change their mind is to lower their defenses and prevent them from digging their heels into the position they already staked out,” Markham told Quartz.

That’s because humans are naturally cooperative. Inciting a confrontation straight off the bat will make your prospect defensive and assume that you’re not open to approaching them as an equal in the conversation. That means they’ll shut down and it’ll be far harder for you to convincingly advise them.

To put this tip into practice, take a moment before marshaling your responses to an objection to fully assess your prospect’s statements. Do they have any concerns that legitimately require a response? Are they spot-on about weak areas in your product you were hoping to avoid?

Face these situations head-on. Instead of skating over the sticky patches, admit that your prospect is right -- but show them why the benefits of your product still outweigh their concerns.

Pascal’s second claim -- that you should guide a prospect to drawing your conclusion on their own rather than shoving your views down their throats -- also holds water, Markham says.

“If I have an idea myself, I feel I can claim ownership over that idea, as opposed to having to take your idea, which means I have to explicitly say, ‘I’m going to defer to you as the authority on this,’” Markham said. “Not everybody wants to do that.”

Putting this tip into action will depend on how well you read your prospect. Dealing with someone more junior and inexperienced? They’ll likely welcome more guidance. But if you’re speaking to a member of the C-suite or someone similarly senior, lecturing them probably won’t get you far.

Changing people’s minds doesn’t have to be a struggle. By simply being honest and using some common sense, you can bring prospects around to your side of the table.

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