Tisha’s Insights

You Can’t Change Their Mind

March 14, 2024 Tisha Schuller
A person's hand drawing carious arrows in different directions with white chalk on a black chalkboard.

I want to liberate you from a burden: You are no longer obligated to change anyone’s mind about the oil and gas industry. 

This doesn’t mean you are no longer an ambassador for the industry—we all must be! However, you will be a more effective ambassador for being freed from the burden of trying to change anyone’s mind.

The most common question I get from leaders in my work is a seemingly mundane but dangerous one: “How do I convince [someone] about [something]?!” As leaders, we find ourselves continually in the pickle of having to influence important stakeholders who are confronting us with misunderstanding of an important topic or, worse, misinformation.

That’s why it’s valuable for me to spell it out: You are no longer obligated to change anyone’s mind. It doesn’t work anyway. (Do you like it when someone tries to change your mind?)  How liberating!

In today’s leadership-focused Both True edition, I provide you with four commonsense strategies for engaging with difficult people. Mind you, I’m defining “difficult people” as those who don’t agree with us, but that’s how we’ll frame the discussion. (It’s our newsletter, after all.)

Leaders are increasingly finding themselves on the forefront of presenting the oil and gas industry to skeptical stakeholders. In a previous edition of Both True (“The Hidden Law of Energy Leadership”), I laid out why this task is not about convincing people with superior facts, but about the delicate art of engaging with curiosity. I’ve also previously covered the central role that respect plays in understanding stakeholders and finding common ground with them. Now that you’ve made respect and curiosity core values in your engagement, let’s explore what you should do when you’ve moved past the notion of changing others’ minds. Because that’s where true leadership emerges.

Both of these things are true:

  • You’re the most reliable source of information about what the industry is doing.
  • Getting stakeholders to trust you isn’t about persuading them or asserting your authority as an oil and gas insider. It’s about becoming their partner—which starts by making connections with them.

You’ve made respect and curiosity cornerstones of your leadership. Now what?

From the sidelines of a kid soccer game to the extended-family holiday table, oil and gas leaders find themselves faced with a range of challenging perspectives about the industry. What do you do when someone asks the equivalent of “How do you work in the industry and live with yourself?”

Four strategies to guide your engagement:

Take a beat. Opportunities to lose your temper abound when it comes to the deeply fractured and polarized world of energy and climate. Many of us have made it our passion to engage in these conversations. But I’m here to remind you that it never really works (even when you think it does). To have any chance of being an effective ambassador, you must first decide to keep your cool. Try this:

  • Really listen to the statement or question.
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Ask yourself, Do I want to do this right now?
  • Smile. Not a scary Joker smile, but an “I respect you as a person. And I respect that your perspective is sincerely held” smile.
  • If you don’t want to do this right now, say, “I’m going to give that some thought. Thank you.”
  • If you do want to continue to engage right now, follow the steps below.

You are not a cat—curiosity will not kill you. In a gesture of respect, engage to learn more about their perspective. Try genuine queries such as

  • “You sound passionate about this; tell me more.”
  • “That sounds like it’s upsetting to you. What would you like to see happen?”
  • “I’m interested to know more: What sources of information do you trust?”

Don’t critique their information sources. Keep moving through the next two steps of engagement with genuine interest—even if you think you’ve heard what they’re saying all before. Remember, they think they know how you’ll react—defensively! You have an opportunity to set up a new, genuine rapport.

Deflect attacks. The stakeholder might attack the industry and even you. There’s no upside to taking these attacks personally, even if they literally are personal. Understand that you’re a proxy in a bigger culture war and do your part to de-escalate. Here are some deflection lines you can try:

  • “I hear you’re upset with my work. What would like to accomplish together in this conversation?”
  • “I get that is how you see things. I see things differently, and I still respect your passion for this topic.”
  • “This kind of conversation is hard. Thanks for telling me what you think.”
  • “I’m going to think about what you said.”

Note: You don’t have to keep the conversation going or promise a follow up. You can gently draw the conversation to a close. Your conversation partner, however, may come back later to engage with you more productively. People cannot evolve their thinking about you or the topic in one sitting. You might have to gracefully let this conversation end.

If you sense an opening, take it. Your open-ended queries may end up running your skeptical conversational partner out of emotionally charged fuel. When someone feels seen and heard, they often become receptive to letting the conversation go in a new direction. My go-to in this case is: “Are you interested in another perspective?” Then speak from the heart about what gives you pride in your work and the industry.

Seize the day:

Partnership is leadership—and when you make the transition from mind changer to conversational partner, you’re taking a huge step toward becoming an even more effective leader. It’s useful to remember that everyone (including you) wants to be treated with respect. Becoming a partner (instead of a persuader) allows you to project respect toward and learn more about your stakeholders and neighbors. Becoming a partner allows you to make emotional connections with people with whom you disagree wildly—connections that often bear fruit down the road. And it’s as a partner that you’ll be able to more effectively share your vision for the energy future—and become a more effective ambassador for the industry.

Want more practical context and tips for energy leadership? I am taking on limited speaking engagements beginning in June. Reach out to learn more. Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here.




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Both of These Things Are True

By Tisha Schuller