How to Change Minds Through Influence, Not Manipulation

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Rob Jolles

Whether at work or in life, on issues large or small, people seek to change minds as a matter of course. The vast majority have good intentions and genuinely want to influence people, not manipulate them.

What’s the difference between influence and manipulation? How can you make sure you don’t cross the line between the two? I’ve devoted my life’s work to finding answers to these questions. This includes polling more than 50,000 people, across three decades and four continents, on how they make decisions.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Influence without manipulation isn’t a pitch—it’s a process. And the process that I believe in, that I teach to thousands of people every year, comes with a promise: It is repeatable, predictable, and measurable. It is also practical and actionable and can be adapted by anyone, at any time, to any situation.

Here is a six-step process to exert your influence:

  1. Understand the decision cycle. People move through six predictable stages—a universal decision cycle—whenever they make a change. If you can’t identify where someone is in the decision cycle, you probably won’t understand how to exercise influence at each stage. For instance, in the “Satisfied” stage, many people will simply say they’re satisfied just to fend off early attempts at change. Your task, then, is merely to listen and learn. In this way, you’ll gain the perspective you’ll need in other stages.
  2. Establish trust. If people don’t trust you, they won’t allow you to influence them. A smart, simple way to establish trust is to talk less and listen more. Try using the 4 A’s: Ask open questions; Actively listen; Aim well (to guide the conversation in the desired direction); and Avoid problems. By alleviating the stress that a conversation about change can cause you’ll build trust.
  3. Create urgency. Four out of five people readily admit that something in their life requires a change, but they just as readily admit that they aren’t doing anything about it. This is why influence requires urgency. To create urgency, ask probing questions that help people consider the issue, contemplate the what-ifs, and comprehend the consequences. Use a sequence of simple probes that gently move the conversation closer to the real problem. For example: “What concerns do you have about the debt you’re building up?” and “How do you think this’ll ultimately affect your family’s future?” Your goal is to guide people to see the potential negative impact of their indecision.
  4. Gain commitment. Most people don’t just show up ready to commit to change, say to end a destructive addiction or leave a detrimental work environment or toxic relationship. A moment of truth must occur; a moment of commitment. Ask the most important question never asked: “Are you committed to making a change?”
  5. Initiate change. We’ve all heard the saying, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” When it comes to initiating change, that one chance usually boils down to about 45 seconds. This makes your opener particularly important. The worst opener: “I need to talk with you.” (Think about how those six words make you feel. Not great, right?) The best openers include softer words and phrases, such as ask you, listen to you, or need your help.
  6. Overcome objections. People resist change; It’s human nature. They may fear change, think it’s not needed, or feel there’s no hurry. The good news? People are more likely to change their minds if they have at least one objection. To overcome objections, you must clarify, clarify, clarify. Only then can you get to the bottom of someone’s concerns and distinguish between real objections and procrastination.

Finally, the line between influence and manipulation often comes down to intent. Ask yourself if you truly believe that the idea or solution you’re trying to push someone toward is in that person’s best interest. If the answer is yes, you can continue the process, knowing that your goal is to influence, not manipulate.Learn more about effectively influencing others in these AMA seminars: 
Expanding Your Influence

Negotiating to Win

About the Author(s)

Rob Jolles is president of Jolles Associates, an international training consulting corporation. Previously, he was a record-setting salesperson and sales trainer for New York Life and Xerox. This article is adapted from his book How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence without Manipulation (Berrett-Koehler, 2013). For more information visit