Tell people what they should do, and there’s a very good chance that they won’t do it. Threaten them with dire consequences if they fail to act, and they often just dig in their heels.
Words spoken by others tend not to spur people to action. If you want to convince family members, coworkers, acquaintances or strangers to do something, the secret is to get them to say why they should want to do these things.
Example: A 2003 study published in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that the number of times a counselor tells an addict that he needs to change has no effect on the addict’s future behavior... but the more the addict himself speaks of his desire to change, the greater the odds are that he will overcome his addiction.
I’ve developed a series of six questions that we can pose to those we hope to influence to encourage them to voice their reasons for doing whatever we want them to do. These questions are based on a well-established counseling approach known as motivational interviewing.
This isn’t mind control, and it’s unlikely to work if someone is 100% against your idea, but in most other situations, it can be very effective.
Example: Asking these six questions increased by 250% the odds that inner-city hospital patients would return for scheduled follow-up visits.
My strategy is most likely to be effective if the person you are attempting to influence feels free to make up his/her own mind and is not backed into a corner. So liberally sprinkle in phrases such as, "It’s completely your decision"... "No one can force you to do anything"... or "You’re your own person and can do what you want."
To further encourage this person’s sense of autonomy, ask permission to ask a question before launching into the questions below, then ask permission to ask follow-up questions.
Set aside any temptation to vent at this person about problematic behavior... to interject your own opinions... or to explain the dire consequences of not doing what you suggest. Such actions on your part detract from the other person’s sense of autonomy.
Overall, the person asking the questions (the influencer) should reiterate any positive reasons for change that he hears from the "influencee" and ignore (and definitely not argue against) any reasons he might hear against change.
Ask these questions, in order, to bring someone around to your way of thinking...
Why might you do this? Fine-tune this question so that it fits the specific situation at hand.
Examples: "If you were to decide to drink less -- and I’m not saying you have to, it’s completely your decision -- what would be the reason?"... "Hypothetically, why might it be beneficial to you to work with me on this project?"... "If you were to give me a discount, what would you get out of it?"
This encourages people to consider their motivations for doing what you want them to do.
Helpful: Cite a small, incremental change, such as "drink less," rather than "quit drinking."
If the person you are attempting to influence responds with a personal benefit that he would derive, move on to question 2.
Potential complications: People sometimes respond that they would get no benefit from doing what you suggest. If so, point to a statement or action that this person previously made or took that indicates he does have some motivation to do something along the lines of what you said.
Example: "Earlier in this conversation, you told me that you wished that there was something I could do to help you. Why did you wish that if you get nothing out of being helped?"
You might receive a response that reflects your goals or some third party’s goals, not the goals of the person you are trying to influence. If so, ask, "But what would you, personally, get out of it?"
Example: If the initial response is, "It would make my wife happy if I quit smoking," ask follow-up questions until you hear something more personal such as, "I wouldn’t wake up coughing"... "I would save money"... or "I feel good when I make my wife happy." Occasionally people will decline to answer this question because they are not considering doing what you suggest. If this happens, explain that the question is purely hypothetical and ask for a response.
How ready are you to do this, on a scale of one to 10, where one means "not ready at all" and 10 means "totally ready"? Replace "do this" with the specific action that’s being discussed, such as "How ready are you to back my candidacy?"
Most people pick a number higher than one if only because saying "one" sounds unreasonable and closed minded. The trick is that when these people answer with a number above one, they hear themselves admit that some part of them is open to the idea.
Potential complication: Occasionally someone will answer "one." When this occurs, repeat the question using a less daunting incremental step.
Example: "Dad, if you’re at one, then I get that you are really not ready to discuss moving to an assisted-living facility. But on the same one-to-10 scale, how ready are you to visit a few assisted-living facilities with me just to see what they’re actually like?"
Why didn’t you pick a lower number? Asking this forces people to confront the fact that they have at least a sliver of desire to do what you wish them to do.
Potential complications: People occasionally respond, "Well, my number was pretty low." If so, counter, "Sure, but it wasn’t one. Why not?" Sometimes people even attempt to revise their earlier two or three down to one when asked this question. If so, say, "Maybe now it’s one, but a second ago, you said two. Why was it above one then?"
Imagine that you already did this. What would the positive outcomes be for you? Unlike Question 1, where you asked why you might do this, this question assumes the action is already done. Replace "did this" with the specific action being discussed, such as "Imagine you’ve already started exercising... "
When people consider taking action, they tend to focus on the challenges that they face and the possibility of failure. This question encourages them to mentally skip ahead to a time when those difficulties and risks are in the past and they are enjoying their success. Imagining success makes ideas under discussion seem real rather than pie-in-the-sky dreams. It also makes people more optimistic and excited.
Potential complication: The person you are trying to influence might mention how other people would benefit. If so, ask, "But how would you benefit?"
Example: Your employee says that coming in on time would be good for his department’s productivity. Press him until he says it also would be good for his performance reviews... or that it would allow him to get his work done earlier so that he could get home to see his kids in the evenings.
Why are those outcomes important to you? This question encourages people to really reflect upon the positive outcomes they mentioned in response to question 4. Continue asking, "And why is that important to you?" to each ensuing response until you reach something concrete and deeply personal. Specific, personal goals are much better motivators than vague desires.
Example: If the answer to question 4 is "Because I’d be healthier," ask, "Why is it important for you to be healthier?" Then continue asking "why?" to each ensuing response until you get something very personal, such as, "If I were healthier, I could play with my grandkids in the park."
So what’s your next step, if any? This final question asks the individual to identify a specific, near-term action that he will take toward the larger goal you have been discussing. Saying this step out loud can help bridge the crucial gap between motivation and action.
Don’t let the "if any" at the end of this question fool you -- obtaining an answer here is not optional. The "if any" is included to reinforce this person’s sense of autonomy by conveying that you are not ordering him to do anything -- it is his decision to take this next step. People are more likely to follow through and take action when they feel that doing so is their decision.
Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Michael V. Pantalon, PhD, a psychologist, motivational coach and member of the faculty at Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut. He is author of Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything Fast (Little, Brown). www.MichaelPantalon.com