Guo Lai Ren (过来人)
Why "Crossover People" are the most persuasive people, and how we can de-stigmatize changing our minds
Have you noticed that people who have changed their minds are more convincing?
Let’s say there’s two sides of a debate, A and B. There are staunch advocates of A and loyal supporters of B. But they’ve always been advocates of A and supporters of B. A people have their talking points, B people have theirs, and when they argue they yell these as loudly as they can to each other and to the neutrals in the middle. Neither really budge.
Then, every now and then, you get someone who switches sides, for whatever reason. Someone who was a lifelong A starts advocating for B. That person is more effective at changing the minds of other A’s, and in speaking to neutral people as well.
In English we might call this person a flip-flopper, a derogatory term. We sneer at them, call them out on presidential debate changes, use their former statements against them to deny their credibility. We admire the person who has just thought one thing all their life and stuck to their guns under adversity, even when - especially when - everyone else doesn’t agree. We don’t have a neutral shorthand for someone who changes their mind.
In Chinese we have a different phrase for these people - 过来人 (Guo Lai Ren). The Chinese English Pinyin dictionary defines 过来人 as “an experienced person”, “somebody who has ‘been around (the block)’“. This is accurate, but when applied to switching sides, it takes on an additional meaning.
过来 (Guo Lai) means ”to come over”. A 过来人 (Guo Lai Ren) is, literally “a person (人) who comes over”. Kind of a neutral statement, not as derogatory as the English equivalent.
You don’t even really have to formally “change your mind” to be a 过来人 - you could just have spent your life doing, saying, believing one thing without really questioning it, and then suddenly have a “Come to Jesus” moment and switch to the alternative side.
Here are some 过来人 in action:
- Ryan Dahl (the Creator of Node.js) - “10 Things I Regret About Node.js”
- Solomon Hykes (original Docker team) - “If WASM+WASI existed in 2008, we wouldn’t have needed to create Docker.”
- Megan Phelps-Roper - “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left”
- Eric Falkenstein - “An Economist’s Rational Road to Christianity” - a well known econ/quant finance authority, on becoming a born-again Christian late in life
- Michael Shellenberger - “Why I changed my mind about nuclear power”
- Mikhail Gorbachev ending the Cold War by reversing several key tenets of Soviet Communism
- Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project, failed to convince Truman to not use the Atomic Bomb but ultimately prevailed at the UN - no country has used atomic weapons since 1945.
- Every example of character development in great films
- more? I will keep adding if I think of more
I think the 过来人 effect works because it engages a few core persuasion principles, which are really the same thing, stated a few different ways:
- Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood: One of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you absolutely understand the opposite side’s point of view because you were the opposite side. So you are intimately familiar with the flaws in their talking points, and hyper aware of important leverage points that they may be underappreciating.
- Pacing and Leading: Persuasion students know that pacing and leading is extremely powerful, and there can be no more authentic form of pacing than self identifying to be formerly part of your opponent’s tribe.
- Inception: Much like the Christopher Nolan movie, the effect here is to soundly convince your audience that you are them, get them to treat you as their avatar, and that what you’re talking about is really an idea that they came up with. Then it really takes root.
- Skin in the Game: It is hard to publicly admit you were wrong, or to change the course of your career or personal beliefs. People respect that and listen to you when you put yourself on the line like that.
- Appeal to Reality: Every idealist’s enthusiasm eventually carries them beyond the bounds of reality due to their optimism and rose-tinted glasses. This is a very human thing to do, but it is also a very human thing to respect “reality checks”. Nobody looks good denying reality. A 过来人, having made the arduous personal journey of changing sides, probably has new, relevant facts on their side (at least, relevant for changing minds). John Maynard Keynes put it best: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”
I don’t have a name for this but there’s also the very simple fact that people who have changed their minds are probably better at convincing people to change their minds, than people who have never changed their minds.
I have noticed in my life a lot of small instances of this principle. Some people note that the best Programming Teachers and Developer Advocates often are career changers, because they’ve had to cross over from a later stage and didn’t grow up with a Commodore 64. I take notice when someone whose entire working career was spent doing one thing suddenly starts talking about a different way to do something.
What are the takeaways? I don’t know, I don’t have a Call To Action or anything. If you notice a 过来人, notice this effect at play. If you are a 过来人 yourself, take note of how you can be more effective by listening to yourself over time (maybe if you have previous tweets and blogs, you can quote yourself and talk about what you got wrong).
Mostly I just wanted to de-stigmatize changing your mind. It shouldn’t be done lightly, but it shouldn’t be a negative either if genuine. And you gain persuasive powers when it happens. Robert Cialdini called these “crossover communicators” once, so if you’d like an English term for this, you could use that.