This is how you persuade the unpersuadable

An image of man and a woman on opposite sides of a table and in place of heads they have megaphones yelling at each other

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one they sprang up” Oliver Wendell Holmes

This quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes is directly on point to the subject of this commentary. Do you have to work with arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic, controlling, or disagreeable people? Then read on.  Collaboration is key. Address conflict. The ideas presented here are based on neuroscience and psychology with direct actionable alternatives you can apply at work and in life.


Ask the know it all to explain it


Do you know a know it all? That is the person that considers himself or herself an expert and simply feels they have to let you know how smart they are? They cannot help themselves. Someone who is arrogant may not realize that they are. Unfortunately, they do not know what they do not know. When you let them know that they do not know what they are talking about, they may become defensive. So, what can you do?

Let them talk. Listen actively and especially with difficult people that think they know it all. When you see some gaps in their commentary, make note. Wait on it. Do not immediately challenge. Ask question to understand.

 Do not embarrass the other party, but simply ask the party to explain in greater detail.

There may be limited substance. If you know more, offering further insights with the intention to help the know it all may prove immensely helpful. As a result, this may add to the situation and actually promote collaboration. With mutual respect and understanding you may turn this negative into a mutual benefit going forward. Think of this as an opportunity to be there to help.


Let the control freak have control


Think about that person that promotes a position as if that position is the only right answer not needing any further discussion. They have no flexibility. This is the way it is. There is no need for any further information or discussion from their perspective. Sometimes that is the way it is. Other times this may simply be stubbornness. Stubborn people believe they are in control of themselves. They believe they can use their will to drive the situation to fit their perspective. Have you ever tried to persuade them with logic? How did that work for you? Not well I suspect. This type of approach typically results in entrenchment. Who are you to try and change my mind is how they may look at your logic. Instead

think of this as a game. What if you plant the seed and let the seed grow as their idea

just like the quote from Oliver Wendall Holmes at the start of the article. How can you do that? What if you present a question like “What if”, “Could we”, “Have you thought about”, or something similar. The key is to see an opportunity or a possibility for the other person to think about the concern from a different perspective. What might be possible? Focus not on beliefs, but instead focus on common values. Look for areas of mutual interest. What can we agree upon? Allow the other person to say “yes” to areas you are interested in promoting with the questions you ask. This will help promote the other party accepting your suggestions and promote the other party to offer additional commentary potentially moving that person in your direction.


Give kudos to the narcissist


Since narcissists believe they are better than everyone else what can you do to influence a narcissist? Clearly, pointing out something wrong is not the right approach. They do not want to hear that. They are likely to attack and attack hard. Think about the bully on the playground. Often times the bully really is not confident in himself or herself and suffers from poor self-esteem. So, what can you do?

Appeal to their desire for attention, their desire to be admired, and their need for adoration.

 When this happens, they are far more likely to give you credibility and appreciation. They are more likely to be open to other ideas. It may be possible to help guide them towards alternative thinking.

A person like this may be willing to admit that they do not have all of the answers. They may be more open to learning from others. That gives you a possible opening to presenting alternative ideas. Start off with a compliment. When you are trying to change his or her mind, you may want to compliment on his or her ability to be creative. In other instances you may want to begin with something like “With your exceptional insight and background”, or when the narcissist is open to ideas you may want to interject them with a caution like “You may not what to hear this, but I think you need to know…”, or ask “Is now a good time to bring up something maybe we have not fully explored”, or something like that.


When necessary, disagree with the antagonist


Antagonists are often ready for a fight and enjoy a good argument. Many have found that if they have a good argument and they have won in the past, this strategy is sound for them. They demonstrate resourcefulness and positive energy to get the job done. Antagonists typically like a good debate. They are out to win. Given this attitude, help them to see things from a different perspective to help orient them into a different direction. They make actually find this interesting and challenging resulting in a greater respect for the other party. Keep in positive and professional. Remember we are all people here. Be tough on the problem and gentle on the people. Having a focus like this will keep your attention on the problem.

Good leaders hire people that will challenge them constructively and for the better.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Dr. Adam Grant in his article Persuading the Unpersuadable provides great insights on this topic with an analysis of Steven Jobs on several of the ideas identified above. His greater elaboration with stories regarding Steve Jobs an additional perspective to bring home important points.

Hire people that will challenge you. You need people that will stand up to you, challenge you diplomatically, address your possible own overconfidence and stubbornness. You need to be able to have cognitive flexibility. You need to be able to challenge your own convictions and empower others to challenge you to make you better. In the end you will be better, so will your team, and so will the organization.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, NSA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]