Think back to a time when you’ve tried to convince someone with an entrenched point of view to change their mind. You might have presented compelling data, conveyed rational arguments, offered supporting facts, and it was all likely a huge waste of time. That’s where this model, first popularised by the Obama administration, might help. A Permission Structure provides an emotional and psychological justification that allows someone to change deeply held beliefs and/or behaviours while importantly retaining their pride and integrity. MAKE CHANGE, DON’T MAKE SOMEONE WRONG. Popularised by US Democratic Party operatives such as Dan Pfeiffer and David Axelrod, and eventually Obama himself (see Origins below for more), there has been surprisingly little written about this approach. In our opinion, it's based on an understanding that radically changing a deeply held belief and/or entrenched behaviour will often challenge a person’s self-identity and perhaps even leave them feeling humiliated about being wrong. It’s not rational, it’s not necessary, and it happens all the time. Permission Structures serve as scaffolding for someone to embrace change that they might otherwise reject. An effective Permission Structure helps someone move to a new point of view in a way that feels rational, justified, and consistent with their existing core values. It’s the justification of doing something counter to their past beliefs, that still allows them to sleep at night and hold their heads up high during the day. TYPES OF PERMISSION STRUCTURES. A Permission Structure can take many forms, here are some possibilities that we generated, including examples around hypothetically influencing someone who is anti-vax to become vaccinated against Covid. Approach Example statement Applied to a vaccination argument. Changed circumstances “I understand <past position> but now this new thing changes everything so…” “It was understandable to be wary before, but now with the rise of Delta and other variants the choice has become clear…” Social proof “Most people in your situation <job/ demographic/ belief> are now deciding to…” “I get it, I was really suspicious about vaccines too, but after seeing my uncle almost die from Covid, I decided to take another look…” New information “I understand <past position> but now, with this new information, it's worth looking at this whole thing again and...” “It was unclear before but these latest studies out of highly vaccinated countries provide new insights that we just didn’t have before…” New stage, new learning “We gave what you thought a go, and that was great because it gave us time to learn more and gain more facts. So, now we can...” “Many people experimented with natural remedies and other immune-boosting strategies, and now that we have the data on those options we can…” That doesn’t apply “I understand that you're concerned about <main issue> and really see why. However, this case is different because...” “You might have been concerned with x vaccine. But I’ve dug into the research and found that Covid vaccines are different because…” Compromise “We’ve made these concessions so the situation is quite different now. That means we can now…” “It’s great that you’re focused on natural supplements, combine them with exercise to boost your general health before your first shot...” This is by no means an exhaustive list and, of course, it will vary based on the person's specific concerns and beliefs, but the main point is to find a pathway for the person to change their opinion and/or action in a way that leaves their pride and integrity intact. IT’S ABOUT YOU TOO! Add this approach to your influencing toolkit, as you try to convince others to change, but consider applying it to yourself as well. This involves being honest about the challenges of the Confirmation Heuristic, and how easy it is to get locked into your views. Be aware of the Permission Structures you currently use to justify your current behaviours, and how you might use them to shift your views. Ask ‘what if’... and ‘what would it take for me to...’ questions to explore alternatives. IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. As mentioned, this model is strongly related to the Confirmation Heuristic and associated models such as Sunk Cost Fallacy. With many applications to politics, one could argue that effective Permission Structures will shift the Overton Window, introducing new conversations into the mainstream that might previously have been considered marginal or fringe. In relation to you, consider minimising the need for Permission Structures by shifting your views with models such as Map vs Territory and the Scientific Method. The Social Proof and broader influencing aspects of the approach can be supported by models such as Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence, The Trust Equation, Framing and Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Finally, in terms of better empathising with your audience, to appreciate their point of view, you might want to consider using Empathy Maps and Nonviolent Communication.
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