How to get what you want without nagging

Would you rather I asked you:

  • Reader, remember that you promised to exercise more this year.
    or
  • Reader, are you going to exercise this year?

How about this:

  • Reader, you really ought to think about recycling.
    or
  • Do you recycle, Reader?

And here’s one more:

  • Reader, healthy eating is good for you, you know.
    or
  • Do you eat healthily, Reader?

When you want to influence someone’s behaviour, it’s better to ask a question than make a statement. That’s what researchers found in a meta study led by Professor Eric Spangenberg published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (‘A meta-analytic synthesis of the question-behaviour effect’, Dec 2015) that reviewed over 40 years of research in the area of influencing. That’s fantastic news for parents and managers everywhere. Teachers and trainers, too. Anyone, really, who wants to get people to do something.

The researchers think that the reason questions are better than statements for persuading people to change their behaviour is that a question subtly reminds people what the best thing to do is without being pushy and telling them. A question about exercising, recycling or eating healthily can lead the person to feel a bit uncomfortable if they don’t do those things. As a result, they’re more likely to do them in order to ease those uncomfortable feelings.

So teachers might ask: Are you planning to finish your project in plenty of time?

Parents might ask: Are yu taking your turn at washing up tonight?

A manager might ask: How is your XYZ coming along? (The XYZ being something you want the employee to work on but the employee isn’t that keen.)

Professor  Spangenberg says that questions are great at encouraging people to behave in socially acceptable ways. Questions can sway customer purchases, reduce gender stereotyping and influence all sorts of other behaviours, too. And you don’t have to ask the question in person, either. You can ask it in an advertising flyer or brochure, a radio advertisement, put up a poster with your question, or ask your question on-line on social media, for instance.

There are two big buts:

  1. Don’t ask a question when the person reliably does whatever it is you’re asking about because they’d be miffed.
  2. Don’t ask a question about unwanted behaviour, because your question could encourage it–the opposite of what you want. So you wouldn’t ask your teenager as he’s heading out on a Saturday night: ‘So, will you be doing a lot of drinking tonight, then?’

Ask don’t tell. Question in the positive to get what you want. Without nagging. Simple, really, isn’t it?

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Seven ways to make your messages memorable

Whether you need to make a point about health and safety, establish a standard operating procedure, train a team member or introduce change, here’s how to make sure your messages hit home:

  1. Use positive language by stressing what you do want, not what you don’t want. For example, don’t say or write ‘Don’t go up an unsecured ladder on your own’, say or write ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder while climbing it’.
  2. Use a photograph or illustration when you can, because, as they say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. For example, when your safety instructions or standard operating procedures say ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder while climbing it’, insert a photograph of two popular team members doing exactly that. (Because images stick in our minds, make sure the photo or diagram shows the right way, not the wrong way.)
  3. Write actively, not passively to keep the word count down and make your points more ‘alive’ and memorable. For example, ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder before climbing it’ is active and more interesting than ‘Unsecured ladders should always be held by another person while being climbed’. (You’d never say it like that, so why write it like that?)
  4. Keep your messages short and simple, and in the (polite) language of the workplace so they’re easily and quickly read and understood.
  5. Use the ‘you’ word: writing personally makes it clear your message is for the reader or listener. For example, you could write ‘You should always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder when you climb it’.
  6. Remember the WIFM—What’s In It for Me? Give people a reason to listen or read. For example, ‘For your own safety, always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder before climbing it’.
  7. Repeat your most important messages often, using different words, different examples and different mediums (e.g. computer screen savers, emails, face-to-face meetings, posters and Twitter).