Why Confrontation Doesn’t Change Minds

confrontationI tend to surround myself with strong-willed people. These are the people I feel I have the most to learn from, and by absorbing as many of my strong-willed friends’ and associates’ characteristics as possible, I’ve been able, with time and effort, to overcome many of my own shortcomings.

However, sooner or later, many of these friends and I end up at odds, and we end up in a confrontation. I’ve parted ways with a handful of strong-willed friends following events like this, and much as I’d like to say they were always the ones doing the confronting, at least half of the time the blame’s fallen on me.

Surely you’ve heard the wisdom that you should “confront a problem head on” before, right? If you don’t confront problems, they never get resolved. But if that’s the case, why’s it so ineffective when you’re confronting someone else – or they’re confronting you?

Today we’re going to have a look at a fascinating study by a man named William Miller, the difference between confronting your own problems and having them be confronted by someone else, and what more effective methods there are out there for helping friends and loved ones recognize and fix their own issues than the one we tend to fall into by default – confrontation.

Alcoholism and the Two Therapists

In 1993, William R. Miller, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico – and one of the most cited scientists in the world – published a very simple study on treating alcoholism that tested two things:

  1. Immediate checkup vs. delayed checkup, and
  2. Directive-confrontational counseling vs. client-centered counseling

As you might expect, the drinkers who were checked up on immediately fared better than the drinkers who were followed up on only after a delay.

You might not be shocked to know that the drinkers who were involved in client-centered counseling – counseling that uses Socratic questioning to help patients open up about what they value, and to allow them to arrive at their own conclusions about their condition and plan their own steps for combating the problems they themselves identify – those patients improved. And you might or might not be a bit surprised to know they improved the fastest.

What you might be shocked by, however, is that the drinkers who were confronted – the ones whom the therapists faced, told them they had a problem, and told them they needed to fix it and tried to work with them to fix it – those drinkers didn’t get better. They got worse.

The drinkers confronted by the therapist and told they needed to stop drinking not only didn’t quit the bottle; they picked it up more.

Drinkers who’d faced confrontation, in response to that confrontation, drank more, rather than less.

Think about that.

What’s your reaction to these findings?

If you’re like most people, your first thought is probably, “Yeah, sure, that makes sense; people don’t like being told what to do.”

And you’d be spot on. That’s the inherent problem with confrontation; confrontation is you telling someone else what to do, or them telling you. Which tends to elicit the following knee-jerk reactions:

  • Suspicion
  • Pushback
  • Resistance

All decidedly not the emotions you want to inspire when you’re trying to change someone’s mind. But, according to the research, these are exactly the emotions you do.

Imagine something you love to do. You love it. It’s how you relax and unwind; it’s an important and enjoyable part of your life. Have you got that thing in your mind? Don’t read on until you have a very clear, concrete picture of it in your head.

Got it? Good.

Now imagine I tell you you need to knock that thing off because it’s hurting your productivity, and that you and I are going to sit down and figure out a way for you to cut back. You’re probably going to say, “Well, but I need this thing; I’ll go crazy without it!” and I’m going to reply, “No you don’t; you don’t need this thing, and you’re going to suffer until you give it up!” In response to this, you’re likely to say, “You don’t understand; maybe I didn’t explain right.” And I’ll continue confronting, and you’ll continue defending… and we won’t get anywhere.

You’ll tell me this thing makes your productivity better, because without the relaxation it gives you you’ll burn out. I’ll tell you that isn’t so.

You’ll tell me life isn’t all about productivity; you need time to enjoy yourself, too. I’ll tell you you’re deluding yourself about what really matters.

You’ll tell me that you and I have different objectives and directions in our life. I’ll tell you that, at the center, we’re all the same.

And all the while as I confront you over this behavior of yours I think you should change and argue with you over it, I’m forcing you to defend the behavior, identify with it ever more firmly, and become ever more entrenched in it. Furthermore, I make you feel there’s a growing rift between us; you think one way, I think another, and more and more our differences become irreconcilable. A larger and larger portion of our discussions center on our differences, and you trust me and want to listen to me less and less.

Ultimately, instead of breaking you of this bad habit, by confronting it directly I end up making it worse. You retreat to your bad habit as a refuge, to show me up, or simply because you’re too depleted to resist it any more.

Confrontation doesn’t work, and it’s incredibly unhealthy for your interpersonal relationships.

But how do you get someone to kick the bottle if you can’t tell them to kick the bottle?

Why Confrontation Doesn’t Change Minds

Have you ever seen the movie Inception?

The primary mission of the protagonists in the film is to plant an idea in the mind of a subject, and do it in such a way that he recognizes it as his own idea. Throughout their mission, traveling down deeper and deeper through the subject’s dreams, they’re forced to do battle with his subconscious, as it tries to root out the foreign invaders, and prevent them from planting their idea.

Changing minds is a lot like this… if perhaps a bit less exciting. But either way, it’s a fulfilling thing to do, like everyone seems to recognize at the end of Inception as they witness the apparently cathartic effect of the idea they planted in the mind of their subject.

Just like the subject’s mind in Inception, the minds of those around you will resist any idea you’re trying to plant into them unless one or both of the following is true:

  1. They are already completely open to your ideas or suggestions, or
  2. You lead them to form their own conclusions without ever pushing an agenda at all

This second one is the most powerful, because the realizations people have are coming from within… instead of without.

confrontationThis is the same reason why confrontation works so well when you confront your own problems, but performs so shamefully bad (e.g., the drinkers who drink more) when you confront other people’s problems. When you’re confronting your own problems internally, you’ve already made the decision to change. When someone else is confronting you, though, your natural instinct is to be skeptical and throw up defenses.

Why’d we evolve to be skeptical of others when they’re trying to force us to change?

That one’s pretty easy to figure out. Picture two different men: one who’s skeptical of others telling him to change, and the other who does whatever others ask with just a little bit of convincing. Who’ll be better at making sure he isn’t ripped off, bamboozled, hoodwinked, or worse by the other members of the society around him?

Right – it’s the first guy. And over time, that ability to avoid getting taken advantage of gets strongly selected for evolutionarily.

For someone to accept what you’re telling them to do in a confrontational way, they’ve got to be completely bought into everything you’re saying. This kind of “total buy-in,” however, is rare to see and normally only exists in cases of full authority (e.g., a parent and child, or a leader and followers in a crisis situation like warfare or an emergency). Even then, you’ll often see at least a hint of skepticism, as the child wonders whether the Tooth Fairy really is real or the soldier speculates about the wisdom of his commander’s seemingly suicidal order to charge the enemy line.

Moreover, with the suspicion of motives it engenders in the people being confronted, confrontation puts big strains on relationships – and often, if it’s used enough, breaks them.

There is a better way.

Drawing Out the Issue

We can guess how those conversations the two therapists had with the drinkers went; these kinds of things typically always go the same way.

Conversation One: Directive-Confrontational Counseling

Therapist: We need to face the facts: you’re a problem drinker.

Patient: I don’t think that’s so. I control my drinking.

Therapist: But you end up in repeated trouble with the law.

Patient: That’s not because of drinking. That’s because of life. You think I have any other choice? You think I want to live a life like this?

Therapist: But it’s the drinking that’s making that even worse.

Patient: When I drink, it’s an escape; I’d be even worse off if I didn’t have it.

Therapist: When people drink, it is an escape; an escape from responsibility, and an escape from having to do something to change their lives and live better ones.

Patient: My life might not be great, but it’s not because of drinking.

As we go through this conversation, we can see the patient becoming more and more polarized and staunch in his opposition to the therapist. He may, at some point, eventually get worn down by the therapist, if he has to stay until a “breakthrough” is reached – but at that point, he’ll largely be paying lip service just to get the situation over with.

His behavior won’t actually be changed, and he’ll revert to his old ways fast.

But now let’s look at the second way of working to effect change.

Conversation Two: Client-Centered Counseling

Therapist: What brings you in today?

Patient: Beats me.

Therapist: It says you’re here because of a drinking problem. Do you have a drinking problem?

Patient: No more than anybody else.

Therapist: Okay. Is it all right for us to talk a little about your drinking habits and how alcohol’s affecting your life, and see if the people who sent you here know what they’re talking about or if they’re just crazy?

Patient: I guess.

Therapist: Great. I’ll just start with some simple questions. How often do you drink?

Patient: Most days I drink.

Therapist: In the afternoon, evening…?

Patient: After work.

Therapist: Okay. How much do you drink after work?

Patient: <sigh> … let’s see. Um, maybe 20 shots a day?

Therapist: 20 shots… and does that get you drunk?

Patient: Pretty drunk.

Therapist: All right. And how are you as a drunk? Happy, angry, the same as usual?

Patient: Sometimes I’m a bit angry.

Therapist: Do you ever do anything you regret when you’re angry?

Patient: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I do.

Therapist: Like what?

Patient: I’ll get in fights. Or spend a lot of money.

Therapist: Do you ever hurt people you care about when you drink?

Patient: … sometimes.

Therapist: Can you give me an example?

Patient: I got in a fight with my best friend about a year ago, hurt him pretty bad.

Therapist: And are you still friends?

Patient: We are, but we don’t hang out as much. He’s trying to get his life in order.

Therapist: So how would you rate alcohol’s affect on your life overall? Is it a good thing, bad thing…?

Patient: Overall… it’s bad.

Therapist: How bad? A lot bad, a little bad?

Patient: A lot bad.

Therapist: Okay, that makes sense, if you’re getting in fights and hurting people you care about and spending too much money. Is there anything good about drinking for you?

Patient: It helps me unwind a bit, I guess.

Therapist: I see. Is there any other way you can unwind, or is alcohol the only way?

Patient: No, not at all. I can watch TV; hang out with my friends. Go have a big dinner.

Therapist: So what essential function does alcohol provide for you then?

Patient: Nothing, I guess.

Therapist: What kind of impact would you say it’s having on your life overall?

Patient: A bad one.

Therapist: So why do you keep drinking?

Patient: I don’t know. I just… I like drinking.

Therapist: Even though it’s having a bad impact on your life?

Patient: Yeah.

Therapist: Would you like to find a way to reduce that impact?

Patient: Yeah, I would.

By drawing out of someone the effects of a behavior they engage in that you’d like to change, you can help them to realize, themselves, how this behavior is holding them back or affecting them negatively.


  • Don’t make accusations
  • Don’t tell them what their problem is
  • Don’t tell them how to fix it (until they’re open to this)

Instead, follow these steps:

  1. Ask them about the habit you want to change
  1. Ask them about the effects its having on them
  1. Ask them if those effects are good or bad
  1. If good, ask them if there are any downsides. You can lead here (e.g., “How about at work? With your family?”)
  1. Once you’ve identified bad effects on the person, ask them why they keep doing something if it’s having bad effects
  1. If there’s a good reason, ask them if there’s anything else they can do that satisfies that reason aside from the behavior you want to change
  1. Next, ask them if they’d like to change the behavior
  1. Then, ask them how they can change the behavior
  1. Now, once they’ve expressed a desire to change, and they’ve suggested some ideas for how they might change it, you can make your own suggestions to help them along
  1. Finally, set goals and targets where applicable

By following this format with people whose minds you want to change, you stand a far better chance of actually getting them to listen.

And if anyone tries to change your mind via confrontation, now that you understand why they’re putting you on the defense with this approach just tell them, “Hey, I realize you’re trying to change my mind to get me to do something that you think would make my life better. So thank you. But you’re using a style of direct confrontation, which is putting me on the defensive and making me more entrenched in my current way of thinking. If you want to change my mind, take some time to understand why I have a given behavior and what its effects are on my life, from my perspective, before asking me to change it.”

I’ve been using this lately with people who’ve been trying to bludgeon me into seeing things their way, and it universally stops them in their tracks. They say, “Oh.” I then make a brief example out of confronting them on some behavior of theirs, to show them what it feels like, and they realize this style puts them on the defensive and forces them to close off their mind to me and close ranks… and that they’re eliciting the same response in me when they try this.

It’s a fascinating piece of insight into how the mind works, and how you can effectively change the minds of others.

Just remember – confrontation fails because change can’t come from without. It can only come from within.

And if you’re ready to start changing minds, you really won’t want to miss all the great tips, tools, techniques, and insights on offer in my newsletter – it’s everything you’ll need to get yourself on the road to a productive, successful business and a productive, successful life. Sign up now to start getting my newsletter delivered straight to your inbox:

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Chase Dumont

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