What is belief? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true.”

As you read this, your head is filled with dozens of such beliefs about scores of different topics. Like it or not, many of those beliefs are based on lies, falsehoods, and innocent misunderstandings.

But—and this is the important thing—even though you might accept that this could be the case, you’ll still defend all your closely held beliefs as if these things were 100 percent, verifiably true!

Hey, but it’s not just you—everyone does this, myself included. For example, many moons ago—long before I was married with kids—I shared an apartment with my very good longtime friend Frank, whom I met in second grade. One day I noticed a huge wet puddle on the carpet by the dining room table. “What is this?” I murmured to myself while grabbing a roll of paper towels to blot the soppy mess and identify the liquid.

“Aha! Root beer!” I thought with the incredible, unshakable confidence of the twentieth century’s greatest military leaders. It’s Frank’s root beer. (He drank it all the time.) He must have spilled an entire giant bottle of the stuff and apparently didn’t clean it up.

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I was as sure that the dark-colored lake on the carpet in my dining room was due to Frank’s root beer as I was sure that I was a male human being with a beating heart. No kidding. If you would have asked me if I believed that Frank spilled soda, I would have annoyingly retorted, “No! I don’t believe it … I know it. It’s a fact. It’s simply what is.”

I even politely confronted him, and he equally politely denied my incredibly confident allegation: “I haven’t had soda for days.” Feeling somewhat intellectually insulted, I shot back, “Look, Frank; look at the color. This is root beer.” I didn’t simply believe that the spill was Frank’s soda—I knew it. (That’s the power of a firmly held belief. It’s not simply a thought … it’s “what is.”)

I defended my belief as if it were … well, a part of me. (Which it really was, since the thought was created in my skull.) For days I couldn’t for the life of me imagine (1) how Frank spilled so much soda, (2) didn’t admit it to me, and (3) didn’t take the time to clean it up.

Poor Frank. I ultimately discovered that the flood wasn’t soda at all but was caused by a leaky hot water boiler that resided behind a locked door just a few feet from the spill. The leaked water was somewhat rusty, giving it the root beer color that threw me off. After this experience, I began to doubt almost everything in my life. I asked myself, “How could I have been so absolutely, so thoroughly, so positively convinced of something that had exactly zero basis in reality? What do I believe this very moment that’s equally false?”

To this day, I think differently about the things I currently guard and defend in my head with similar intensity. In other words, I leave room for a little wedge of doubt to insert itself into each of those beliefs. I allow that wedge to grow—if appropriate—so that my currently firm held belief can be split open, exposed to the bright sunlight of truth, and ultimately dried and shriveled to a crisp. Otherwise I would simply look like a fool to those who know better, especially if I vigorously defended my position.

This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.

Orson Scott Card

What about you? What do you currently believe that on thorough inspection is flat-out false, wrong, totally unsubstantiated by anything resembling reality of any kind? The same kind of thinking applies to your product or service. To many prospects, what you’re selling is too expensive, too cheap, too unreliable, too inconsistent, too ugly, too impractical, too dangerous, too boring, too inefficient, too unbelievable, or a slew of other things that keep their wallets glued inside their pockets.

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Belief can be an especially formidable opponent when you understand exactly why people defend their positions so vigorously. Psychologists tell us that even if our beliefs are based on erroneous information, we’ll defend our positions as if our very survival were being threatened. That’s how closely we associate with them.

For example, to demonstrate how we instinctively fuse our thoughts to our physical selves, I conduct a simple demonstration during my sales and advertising seminars. I hold up a blank sheet of paper and announce to the audience, “This piece of paper is you.” Then I aggressively crumble the paper, throw it to the floor, and stomp on it, twisting my foot on the now flattened and squashed paper ball much as a cigarette smoker would crush out a burning cigarette.

Horrors! The reaction is palpable. “Drew, what a terrible thing to do! You just insulted every member of your audience. You told them that they are that paper, and you destroyed it right in front of them. You just disrespected your participants.”

Goal achieved. Every participant who felt such a reaction did exactly the same thing that psychologists say humans do when associating with their beliefs: they become their beliefs and defend them as if their physical bodies were being attacked. Like those beliefs, the seminar participants are reacting as if that sheet of paper— which they instantly identified with only seconds earlier—had become their entire selves. When I crushed and stomped on it, they literally felt insulted, hurt, upset, and confused. “Gasp! Why would Drew do such a thing?”

Actually, the paper had nothing to do with them. Just as I told them the paper “was them,” their brain, the factory of their thoughts, associated those thoughts as part of itself. Of course those thoughts came from “inside of it.” Think about it. What could be more personal than the things that emanate from inside our bodies? That’s exactly why the brain strives to protect them. In fact, link anything to survival—and that’s exactly what the brain does—and you’ll strive to protect it. Now do you see what a tough opponent you’re up against?

As with my beliefs about Frank and the root beer river, many of your prospects’ beliefs about your products run the range from being right on the money to being 100 percent factually incorrect. Wherever they fall within this range, it presents a similar problem for you: as long as they continue believing, they won’t give you their money. In business, that’s about as big a sales problem as you can have. But what the heck can you do?

Fortunately, there are ways to alter your prospects’ beliefs about your products and services, including the primary belief that they don’t want or need it. One of the most effective of these methods works by shifting the focus away from the attitudes about what you’re selling and onto the underlying beliefs.

To Change Beliefs, Reprogram Their Brains

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To get your prospects thinking differently about your product, you must provide them with new ways to think about it that erode the data that constitute a belief’s very foundation. (They’re not motivated to do this on their own.) Contained within your persuasion tool kit are three powerful instruments—fear, humor, and guilt—all of which affect your prospects’ right brain, the so-called creative hemisphere. To affect the left brain—the so-called intellectual hemisphere —the correct instrument is logic expressed through the presentation of facts, evidence, and examples.

Your goal is to present your prospects with an alternative view of reality that’s not supported by their current belief system. Even if they feel a certain way about what you’re selling, if you provide new ways for them to think about it, belief change is just around the corner.

Beliefs change through a natural cycle in which the parts of a person’s system which hold the existing belief in place become destabilized.

Want an example? Okay. For years I’ve been a big proponent of flu shots. I religiously have gotten stabbed in the arm for as long as I can remember. My thinking has always been, if you can spend a few bucks and avoid getting the flu, why not do it? It takes just seconds, you typically don’t feel a thing, and it gives you peace of mind.

This wasn’t just a feeling. It was my hard-core belief that nobody in his or her right mind should avoid getting vaccinated. I went around telling people, “Get the shot. Why be sick? Get the shot, get the shot!” I promoted the thing so often, I should have been on a pharmaceutical company’s payroll.

However, my rock-solid “everyone should get the shot” belief started to crumble when I began learning more about the flu. I found out that there are three main types of flu virus, and each type can mutate from year to year. I learned that although the media annually pump out scary stories about how people are dropping like flies from the flu in the United States, more people die from asthma and malnutrition.* I learned how the shot is made. Every year, health authorities travel to Asia to learn which strains of the flu virus are currently active among the local residents. Next, the same authorities make the big assumption that the same strains will be active when they make their way to the United States many months later. (Remember, the viruses constantly mutate.) Next, vaccine manufacturers are instructed to include in the U.S. vaccines the three flu strains that the researchers found in Asia.

I learned that the flu viruses are deactivated by using formaldehyde and preserved by using thimerosal, a dangerous chemical derived from mercury, a deadly poison. Even the supposedly thimerosal-free version contains harmful amounts of that ingredient. A toxic amount of mercury is considered anything over 200 parts per billion (ppb), and thimerosal-free vaccine contains 300 to 600 ppb. The vaccine most commonly used contains 50,000 ppb.

I also learned that serious reactions to the vaccine include life-threatening allergic reactions to the chemical carriers and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), also known as Landry’s paralysis, a serious disorder that occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of its own nervous system.

Other studies have documented or investigated many other serious reactions to the shot, including thrombocytopenia (a disorder in which an abnormally low number of clot-forming platelets is present in the blood) and an inflammation of the brain known as encephalitis.

From 1999 to 2002, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advocated vaccinating young children, very few kids died from the flu—an annual average of 17. After they started vaccinating children, flu deaths skyrocketed to 90 in 2003 alone.

So, how effective is the flu vaccine? The CDC says it varies, depending on whether they predict the strains correctly nearly one year in advance. If the strains in the vaccine don’t match the strains that are circulating, the vaccine will be absolutely worthless.

In a master study of children older than age two, an effectiveness rate of only 36 percent was cited. (Cochrane Collaboration, 2006.) In a master study of children below two years of age, there was absolutely no evidence of effectiveness (The Lancet, 2005).

A master study of healthy adults under age 65 reviewed 40 years of inoculation data and concluded that the flu vaccine had zero effect on hospital stay, time off from work, or death from influenza and its complications. The study’s authors stated that, “Universal immunization of healthy adults is not supported by the data” (Cochrane Collaboration, 2004).

In 2006, the British Medical Journal published a study that looked at all available flu immunization data. Its conclusion echoed those of the other studies: little or no effect.

There you have it: information that flies directly in the face of my formerly hard-core belief about the importance and wisdom of getting a flu shot.

So what the heck do I do now? I know that my chances of getting the flu are slim because I don’t work around others. I’ve learned that some of the ingredients in the shots are known toxic substances. And I’ve learned that master studies—studies of multiple studies—reveal that the shot is not effective.

My conclusion is that I’m not getting the shot this year. I don’t need poisons shot into my body when the overwhelming evidence shows that the vaccine won’t do a thing in the unlikely event that I am exposed to the virus. In fact, the only thing I can be sure of regarding the flu shot is that toxins will be injected into my body. No thanks.

The purpose of my telling you all this isn’t to get you all worked up about flu shots. Many doctors and scientists recommend vaccination, and if you want the shot, you should get it. Instead, it’s to demonstrate how an entrenched belief (And believe me … it was entrenched!) can be changed by new information.

What you need to remember is that your prospects’ thoughts are usually based on very limited data, just like my thoughts about getting vaccinated. I knew nothing about it but still had the thought “you’re supposed to get it; it works” because nobody ever challenged my beliefs.

Your biggest mistake is thinking, The reason people aren’t buying is that they think X about my product and those beliefs probably can’t be changed.

Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.

Fact is, the seemingly “rock-solid” beliefs that you keep banging your head against are likely as flimsy as a toddler’s plastic “safety knife” attempting to cut into a he-man New York strip.

Why and when they originally adopted their beliefs isn’t important. We’re not Freudian psychologists trying to psychoanalyze our prospects on a couch. Their beliefs exist today, right now, and the only reason most of them exist is that they were never countered.

Your prospects’ unchallenged beliefs are like the family of German cockroaches that moved into your house when those “interesting” new neighbors moved into theirs after taking their moving boxes out of the insect-infested long-term storage facility.

Should you choose not to bother smacking the bugs with your shoe or eliminating them in a less aggressive manner, the lovely mommy and daddy roaches will reward you for your kindness by mindlessly breeding inside the four walls that surround you and your family. Shortly thereafter, the female will gift you with a light-brown, double-rowed, purse-shaped capsule protruding from her wonderfully trim abdomen containing up to 48 plump eggs, with a fresh, newly loaded capsule subsequently deposited behind your kitchen walls every six weeks. Hatching starts in about 28 days, and assuming the typical two generations per year, over 10,000 descendants will be free to enjoy whatever starches, sweets, greases, and meats you happen to have. Don’t be too concerned about feeding them. If they can’t find enough to eat in your home, they’ll munch on one another. How thoughtful!

“That’s gross!” Perhaps, but it’s the entomological equivalent of an unchallenged belief. It can grow, get stronger, and live in a person’s brain from the moment of its conception to the time that person flat-lines. A belief maintained and “rehearsed” through repetition (telling others repeatedly to get a flu shot: and defending its existence for, say, just one year, “What do you mean you’re not getting one? That’s crazy. Why suffer?”) typically isn’t as tough a belief to change as one that’s decades in the making (“Oh, I remember when they were spouting the same negative things about polio shots back in the 1960s. Shots worked then, and they work now. Just get the shot and stop making excuses about it being ineffective”).

If the belief has gone largely unchallenged, such as mine about the flu shot, changing it is still possible no matter how long it’s been maintained. That’s because it hasn’t been callused by attack. It never needed to defend itself. The owner of the belief was never motivated to use central route processing (deep thought) to fully consider his position and thereby dig in to weather future attacks. Challenge these beliefs with facts and most will melt away faster than you ever dreamed possible.

However, if you’re confronted by beliefs that are stubborn and resistant to change, the next strategy can help you mount a peripheral attack that can be very effective.

Can’t Change the Belief? Then Rerank Its Importance

Let’s face it: the world is an imperfect place. Sometimes we can’t change a person’s belief no matter how hard we try. Don’t fret. Simply switch to plan B: change the importance of the belief rather than the belief itself. A set-in-stone belief is often easier to strengthen or weaken than to change.

For example, Patty loves making her own pizza. Does she ever! In fact, she loves it so much that her husband and two sons often pray at night that she occasionally will make something else for dinner. Pizza Patty, a nickname she adores, is without question the most active noncommercial flour, yeast, and mozzarella buyer in her county. The idea of buying in bulk fascinates her, and because the extra refrigerator in her garage is overflowing with less important (non-pizza-related) things (milk, eggs, and other silly foods), she rents a small portion of a local warehouse for storage. (Despite the costly monthly rental fee, she calculates that she’s still saving money buying flour in hernia-producing 100-pound bags.)

According to Patty, the only way to make pizza is on a well-oiled aluminum pizza pan. She owns eight of them in various sizes, and she’s proud to boast that they’ve all turned nearly black from frequent use. “Use a pan, use a pan, use a pan,” she aggressively blasts when someone asks for the secret to her great homemade pizza. “Only amateurs—or pizza-baking fools—don’t use aluminum pans. It’s the key to all pizza success,” she snorts at anyone daring to question her judgment, with lightning bolts shooting from her eyeballs.

The challenge? You work for a company that sells pizza stones, and it’s your job to persuade Patty to put her pans away and go pro by baking her pizzas on a thick slab of stone: yours.

With Patty’s pizza pan predilection and persistent proselytizing, where do you start?

Of course, you don’t want to overtly attack Patty and her choice by saying, “Oh, Patty, you’re so silly! No professional uses an aluminum pan to bake any pizza worth eating. Where did you learn your technique … from years of cooking TV dinners?” Instead, you want to acknowledge and ratify what she’s currently doing and get her moving in the direction of agreement, not have a confrontational debate. With that setup, let’s launch right into the next strategy.

Your goal is to weaken Patty’s currently held beliefs that stand in the way of persuading her to buy your pizza stone by establishing even a hairline crack in her ego-hardened armor so that your new data can penetrate it and to effect a complete change of mental position or simply show Patty the existence of an alternative worthy of her consideration.

To do this, you introduce new information, whether emotion-based (fear, guilt, humor) or logical (facts, evidence, examples), that conflicts with her current beliefs.

“Sure, Patty; many people use aluminum pans to bake pizza at home, and they’re very happy with the results. [ratification of current belief] In fact, I used to cook pizza on an aluminum baking sheet for years, and I always thought it was perfectly fine. [rapport builder: “I’m just like you”] Aluminum pans offer a few advantages for baking pizza: they’re lightweight, which makes them easy to handle with a fully topped pizza; they heat evenly for pretty consistent cooking; and they’re easy to clean.” [augmentation of initial statement to further align with Patty’s longtime ego-defended position]

By this point Patty begins the process of liking you—a very important step before you attempt to modify someone’s beliefs. (Do you think she’d be open to anything you’d say if you threw that nasty TV dinner comment at her?) Patty likes it that you’re agreeing with her philosophy, which causes her to—at least on an unconscious level—think that you are somehow like her. You’re creating rapport, which is defined by Webster’s as “a relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity.”

Patty’s mental modification continues.

“And even though aluminum offers a nice baking surface [repeated ratification of current position], when the results of an internationally conducted side-byside comparison by 1,585 professional pizza bakers who used our one-and-ahalf-inch-thick PieRock oven stone—specially crafted for professional pizza baking—versus aluminum pans like the one you’re now using, 96 percent of professional pizzeria owners and 97.5 percent of their patrons—that’s over 792,000 worldwide customers in all—preferred pizza baked on our PieRock stone. [Major data dump denoting worldwide affirmation of claims by respected professionals (not amateur bakers) tests the strength of Patty’s ego and her confidence in her position.]

“PieRock is made from the same high-grade material and specs as true commercial deck-oven hearths costing pizzeria owners thousands of dollars. In fact, many of them spend over $1,000 to reline their current commercial pizza ovens with PieRock because it’s that good. [The specificity of this example causes Patty to think, ‘Why would they spend that kind of money if it didn’t work?’] No smart businessperson would spend that kind of money if it didn’t create far superior pizzas. [ratifies her thinking] It transforms [note that we didn’t use the word makes or produces but transforms, which connotes the “science of heat transfer”] ordinary dough into an incredible crisp crust that’s unmatched by even the best aluminum pans—even the great ones that you and I own. [effect: “I’m with you, Patty. We’re alike. We’re making this decision together.”] In fact, if pizza shop owners could get the same results from aluminum pans, they’d buy the pans and save a ton of money. [reasonable statement of logic] But they don’t. Here’s why.

“You’re familiar with brick-oven pizza, right? [comparison with something familiar] The pros call them masonry ovens, and PieRock pizza stones actually simulate the brick-oven effect at home. This special nonglazed finish and the industry’s only quarter-inch stainless-steel core has dramatically more thermal mass [scientific claim] than aluminum pans and ordinary pizza stones, so it gets to temp 73 percent faster. [scientific data claim] And because it’s so porous, it absorbs moisture from the dough extremely rapidly, resulting in a crispier [scientific cause and effect statement connotes logical presentation] professional pizzeria–style crust that actually sings—gently crackles—when you take it out of the oven: amazingly delicious! [Curious fact helps differentiate product from those which don’t produce such results.]

“And the magic starts with the immediate interaction between the hot PieRock and the moist dough. When the two meet, an incredibly powerful aroma of baking dough is sent through your kitchen. It’s really an amazing experience, like walking into a professional bakery and seeing and smelling the dozens of loaves of handcrafted artisan breads neatly stacked on big rustic wooden racks. [Sensory-specific (auditory/olfactory/visual) descriptors help the prospect see the product in her mind before purchasing it.]

“Unfortunately, we don’t get this when we cook on metal. [Restatement of primary claim. “We” phrasing suggests that “we’re in this together.”] I wish we could because I really like aluminum [reestablishes rapport: we’re alike], but we just can’t. [“We’re alike, but after I learned the facts, I changed to stone, so you can feel comfortable doing so, too.”]

“In fact, if you did a side-by-side taste test—I actually did this at home with my wife and kids [Details add authenticity. Personal details build rapport.]—it’s a difference you’ll experience instantly with your first bite because the crunch is unmistakable. [introduction of kinesthetic details to expand the image] I was honestly shocked at the difference because aluminum was always my go-to choice. [In effect, “I know you love your pans, Patty, but you’ll be shocked just as I was.”]

“The bottom line is that aluminum pans produce good pies. [In effect: “Don’t forget that we agree with each other, Patty; I’m on your side.”] But for just $35, you can step up to baking truly world-class pizzas using the number one cooking surface chosen by the top pizzerias across the United States and worldwide. I primarily sell to pizza shop owners, but as a fellow bake-at-home pizza lover I’ll extend a professional courtesy discount to you: just $24.95—that’s nearly 30 percent off. If you don’t completely agree that it’s 100 percent better than baking on aluminum—which you and I both love and probably always will—I’ll buy it back from you and give you a three 2.2-pound bags of Antico Molino Caputo 00 pizza flour as my thanks just for trying it. In fact, here’s one of those bags right now. I want you to use the world’s best pizza flour when you try your new PieRock. Which of these three sizes is best for your oven?” [This minor-closing question, when answered, presumes approval of the sale.]

Of course, the coup de grâce would be a side-by-side bake-off: you with your PieRock and Patty with her aluminum. It’s just not practical, however, so the no-risk trial is your next best bet. Introducing new data can shake the foundation of even firmly held beliefs. It’s just a matter of having enough credible evidence to put that first chink in their armor.

Remember: your prospects want to believe your appealing claims, but their survival instinct tells them to be cautious. Therefore, don’t focus on a slick presentation. Focus on an abundance of credible evidence. That’s what helps tear down those walls.