Peter Cook has a plan and it’s called “Brexorcism”. But what does it entail and could it be successful enough to cause a mini epoch in the lives of leavers and actually make them rethink their motives? 

Last time I wrote on Brexit, we scaled the strategic heights by examining scenario models for how Brexit will end, due to its own contradictions or through cataclysmic shocks to the process … see “Brexit End Games”. In this “how to” piece we drop down from the clouds to street level to examine strategies to help you win friends and influence people in the great “Brexorcism” exercise that needs to take place to alter the “will of the people”.

I have spent thousands of hours in cafes, bars, on the street etc. doing what J.K. Rowling would call “Defence Against the Dark Brexit Arts”. I’ve used a suite of tools and techniques gained from 25 years of business consulting, mastery in the psychological discipline known as NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and a masters’ degree in the “University of Life”, gained working with hardened musicians in rock bands. I cannot possibly deliver a full tutorial in the skills needed to convert even semi-hardened Leave voters in a short article, as these are skills that need practice rather than just knowing what to do. Nonetheless I shall give some principles and a few stories that illustrate these principles in practice. This is part of what I described in our “Five A Day” strategies and practices to end Brexit.

Blowing Bubbles

Some Remainers tell me that they don’t like talking to people who voted to Leave and I understand that, with a sister who repeatedly tells me that she voted Leave to “prevent Sharia law on Tonbridge high street”. However, if we don’t work outside our comfort bubbles, we achieve little that will contribute towards “moving the dial” in terms of a People’s Vote. We are in effect, forever blowing bubbles so take courage people – a little confidence and skill is needed, but renew yourselves. You will find that attitudes towards Brexit have changed if you have not dared to use the B word in polite conversation for some time.

The Brexit Psyche

Conversing with hundreds of Leave voters in cafes and pubs reveals some general traits or what NLP would call meta-programmes. Leave voters often, but not always because one can never generalise, think in these kinds of dimensions:

Temporal : Their time perspective is often very short term. Today, this week, this month, possibly as far ahead as a summer holiday. But there’s rarely much point talking to Leave voters about Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 50 year Brexit scenarios, as it frequently provokes responses such as “But I’ll be dead” or even “Who is Jacob Rees Mogg?”. Of course, many Leavers do have children, which can change matters as we discuss below.


Two sides to every cover upSpatial : In terms of geography, a Leave voter’s compass often centres around their house and family, their street, their town, possibly England but rarely further. I was listening into a café conversation recently, where a small group of old Leavers were “celebrating the advent of blue passports”. I was quietly bemused to find the café owner asking them when they last left the country. It turned out that none of them had ever travelled abroad. Three of them (from four) had never even visited London (30 miles / 49 minutes by train) in some 60 + years on planet earth. Globalisation does not mean much to such people and we achieve little by discussing it, unless they bring it up as part of their rationale for leaving the EU, for which there are clear answers.

Outlook : In terms of self or other centricity, I note with some sadness that there is rarely any ability to see Brexit from any viewpoint other than their own. So appeals based on worldliness, selflessness or greater good type approaches can fall on deaf ears. In NLP terminology, some Leave voters have trouble getting into “second” position, certainly “third”, where they can see things from other perspectives outside their own.

Now, of course, we could rant on here about what is wrong with these people but it does no good. Seek first to understand their viewpoint, however dissonant it is with yours. At this point you stand a better chance of changing it.

Blank Canvases and Restoring the Brexit Mind

It’s much easier to paint on a blank canvas than one that has already been painted on … In other words, the populist press had already etched firmly held beliefs on these people’s minds over many years. Any challenges to such views is rather like trying to apply an aggressive paint stripper to their minds or undo a CDR that has already been written on and finalised. The technical term for this is unlearning. It’s much harder than learning as it requires the “undo” step. To stand a chance in this dark art, extensive preparation is required and you almost need to get permission and agreement to perform the “Brexorcism”. I also occasionally work in stealthy mode as well however!


Enter the Dementor

To be an effective influencer, try finding things you can agree on with your Leave voter. They need not be lies. In Harry Potter terms it’s what I call Entering the Dementor. It’s what NLP refers to as “pacing and leading”. Pacing is when you are in the other person’s reality, in their shoes so to speak. Leading is when you are operating from your own point of view and literally leading them to see different realities. A story serves to illustrate the principle:

I was talking to a pub owner in Brexit Central aka The Isle of Sheppey. He had fought for his country in the Falklands, came back to the UK and felt let down by the UK. His pub was empty and he wanted to leave the UK with his Russian wife to live in the US as a committed Brexit and Trump supporter. He was not expecting me to agree that he was right to feel fed up. Once we had established that (pacing), he found it much easier to hear the point that, whilst he was right to feel fed up, he was wrong to blame the EU for his regrets. I had separated the effect (angst) from the cause. In truth it took a little time (I did not achieve it in one single session and incubation time is often helpful) and I had “warmed him up” by getting him to dance to our Chas & Dave Cockney Brexit Knees Up beforehand. Finding ways to loosen up your client is is all part of the skill of a change agent.

Minding your language

NLP has a whole section on linguistics and there is far to much to go into here … suffice to say that the language you use has a huge impact on how another person will perceive you and ultimately how influential your message will be. The principle of pacing and leading also applies. If possible work in your client’s own vernacular and don’t impose yours on them. It just gets in the way of success.

My wife tells me that the “beauty of me” is that I’m what she calls “intelligent scum” … I believe this is a term of endearment! What she says is this:

“You have three degrees and are at home talking with Professors, Scientists, Politicians, Media people and so on. But you have never lost your working class accent and as a musician, you have also been used to speaking plainly with people in pubs. People don’t always get it but you really are able to reach across a broad church of people”

I use this skill on a regular basis in my pub and cafe Brexit conversations. Usually people come to me to talk, triggered by my selection of provocative anti-Brexit T-Shirts.  Getting people to want to talk to you rather than the other way round is by far the best way to engage people.  Here’s a shortened story of one successful interaction with a hardened Brexit voter in “Brexit Central” aka North Kent:

We’re goin’ down the pub

Oh my … one hour Brexit conversation in a pub in Gillingham started by my t-shirt … 66 year old ex BBC radio engineer, two kids, one in Parkhurst the other on the dole … key points :

“I love your T-shirt, it’s very clear… ” p.s. I cannot put a picture of the T-Shirt on this post but it states very clearly FU … K BREXIT

I explain (at great length and very slowly) yes. Fu … k Brexit, says it straight, unlike our lying politicians on all sides yada yada. He nods in agreement … (pacing)

5 minutes later I have to tell him that we are on different sides as he has not worked it out …  but he agrees and we continue … (leading)

We covered all kinds of things … being invaded by the infidel … the need to get our country back … the future of life with Trump … the fact that Vietnam is not in Europe (he did not know and I made the mistake of saying that not many people in the high street would know that … he then admitted that he did not actually know where Vietnam was).

Eventually after he had “unloaded” on me, I said that it seemed that he really regretted the decline of British industry, he wanted his son to come out of prison and we needed to get back being an island (he had never travelled). I went on to agree with his sense of disappointment and then asked what part of his sense of alienation was due to the EU. The subject changed. After a while he started to talk about his grandchildren. I asked him what he thought we would get from leaving the EU and when. He really did not know.

Talked about his kids and grandchildren. Daughter 33, has never worked. Son, older, in Parkhust. He does not like his son in Parkhust because “It’s full of blacks”, although he is quick to point out that he is not a racist. He moved away from London because of the blacks 19 years ago and now finds them invading his town. This is the fault of the EU. I point out that immigration is under our own government’s control … he agrees … I spend some time trotting out the story of my sister and the two million rapists coming from Berlin. I ask him why rapists from Berlin are “worse” than “great British rapists” … he does not know …

We carry on with kids. I tell him that my son will be 73 by the time we’ve paid for Brexit.

He nods … there was a lot of nodding … (leading)

Subject changed towards food for some reason … he told me how much he hated all the food in the high street because it had garlic in it. He did not like garlic. I pointed out that it grows here and asked:

“So, if you were to explain to your grandchildren that we were leaving the EU because you don’t like garlic and that they would be paying for this for the rest of their lives, would that be enough for them to agree with you?”

His reply “Not really – I’d need another dozen reasons …”

“I asked “and what are those?” He did not know.

I considered I had done enough to move him at this point and we changed to another subject.

Final remarks

I could go on at length about the question of style and whether you should use more directive or non-directive approaches, the gentle art and discipline of storytelling, challenging viewpoints without tears and so on. We had planned to run a series of masterclasses called “Defence Against The Dark Brexit Arts” but time has probably run out. You may find out more about our approaches to change mastery at Human Dynamics.

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Peter Cook
As well as an ardent campaigner for Britain remaining in the European Union, Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers keynotes around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Leading innovative Pharmaceutical Product Research and Development teams to bring multi-million dollar life-saving drugs safely to the market including Human Insulin and the first treatment for HIV / AIDS and Herpes. Peter is an MBA, Chartered Chemist, Chartered Marketer, FCIPD and an NLP Old Master.

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