The proof showed that such a minimal counterexample cannot exist, through the use of two technical concepts (Wilson 2014; Appel & Haken 1989; Thomas 1998, pp. 852–853):
An unavoidable set is a set of configurations such that every map that satisfies some necessary conditions for being a minimal non-4-colorable triangulation (such as having minimum degree 5) must have at least one configuration from this set.
A reducible configuration is an arrangement of countries that cannot occur in a minimal counterexample. If a map contains a reducible configuration, then the map can be reduced to a smaller map. This smaller map has the condition that if it can be colored with four colors, then the original map can also. This implies that if the original map cannot be colored with four colors the smaller map can't either and so the original map is not minimal.