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Scott Berkun

Quality Insider

How Do You Make People Think?

‘You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.’

Published: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 17:39

The worst, and most common, way to try to make people think is to use force. When people ask the question, “How can I make people think?” they usually mean, “How can I get other people to think the way I do?” They don’t precisely want more people to think well, since free thinking is unpredictable. Instead, they really want submission, and the way you get submission is by force.

Many organizations, leaders, and even parents use force, which includes intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. Would you want anyone to use these approaches on you? I doubt it. Which leads to the first lesson about making people think: Use the golden rule (or the platinum rule).

How would you want to be treated if someone else wanted to make you think? You’d first want to be treated with respect. Second, you’d want to be offered new information or a new story about how to look at a situation. And third, you’d want the opportunity to have a civil conversation, where you were encouraged to ask questions, explore multiple points of view, and could safely explore a range of answers. Providing all three of these takes time. A real debate when multiple points of view are explored fairly takes far more effort than flinging platitudes and self-serving statistics.

“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”
—Bertrand Russell

This means patience and commitment are the only ways to encourage people to think and think well. Thinking is a choice. The other person must find a genuine interest in the question being asked in order to choose to think. If you manipulate the person into thinking something, he’ll be just as easily manipulated out of it. Thinking is a social process: We are better at thinking the more time we spend with other people who think well. If you want to help someone think, you have to offer a better community for safely asking questions and searching for answers than the one she has.

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”

In the end you can’t make anyone think anymore than you can make someone happy. Philosophers, artists, and leaders have been trying to encourage our species to be better at thinking for centuries with debatable results. You can make pitches, you can provide opportunities, and you can give of yourself, but in the end it’s up to the other person to choose to be open to change.

First published Feb. 10, 2015, on Scott Berkun’s blog.


About The Author

Scott Berkun’s picture

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a bestselling author of five books and a speaker known for his work on creativity, management, and philosophy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, and other media. His latest book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work (Jossey-Bass, 2013) was named an Amazon.com best book of the year.