The Catalyst: A book revIew by Bob Morris

The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind
Jonah Berger
Simon & Schuster (March 2020)

“If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.”  Kurt Lewin

Years ago while in Washington (DC), I attended a reception for the new English ambassador to the U.S. and at one point engaged in conversation with one of his aides. I asked him to share his thoughts about effective diplomacy. “Letting the other chap have it your way.”

I thought of that response as I began to work my way through Jonah Berger’s latest book. He cites Lewin’s comment, adding, “But the reverse is also true. To truly change something, you need to understand it.” As is his SOP, Berger competed wide and deep research on what is often chracterized as the art and science of persuasion.

In Rhetoric, Aristotle examines four levels of discourse: exposition (explain with information), description (make vivid with compelling details), narration (explain a sequence of events), and argumentation (convince with logic and/or evidence). That was a while ago, In recent years, there have been dozens of excellent books in which their authors share other thoughts about persuasion.

Berger’s approach sets his book apart from the others. It is conceivable that what he recommends could operate at three or even four of the levels. He introduces a change agent that he identifies as a catalyst. These are the catalyst’s defining characteristics:

o REACTANCE: Catalysts “allow for agency and encourage people to convince themselves.”

o ENDOWMENT: “To ease endowment, catalysts surface the costs of inaction and help people realize that doing nothing isn’t as costless as it seems.”

o DISTANCE: “Perspectives that are too far away fall in the region of rejection and get discounted, so catalysts shrink distance, asking for less and switching the field.”

o UNCERTAINTY: “To get people to un-pause, catalysts alleviate uncertainty. Easier to try means more likely to buy.”

o CORROBORATING EVIDENCE: “Catalysts find corroborative evidence, using multiple sources to help overcome the translation problem.”

Note: It is impossible to exaggerate the importance, when communicating, of making certain that your intended meaning is fully understood, with or without agreement. In a phrase, make your message crystal clear.

The acronym REDUCE will help you remember these five. Revealing them requires no spoiler alert. In a separate chapter for each, Berger thoroughly explains HOW to catalyze principled persuasion. Therein is perhaps the greatest value of his rigorous and eloquent narrative.

Each of Jonah Berger’s books (and especially his latest) is reader-friendly. The five checklists provided in the Epilogue, for example, review how to help mitigate common barriers. Readers will also appreciate the dozens of stories included that anchor key insights in human experiences with which most readers can readily identify.

When encountering even the most difficult situations, people who have become effective catalysts know how to reveal the root cause(s) of resistance to change, then reduce roadblocks to resolution or determine that the given situation cannot be resolved. The value of developing these skills is incalculable within as well as beyond the workplace.

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