Would you rather I asked you:
- Reader, remember that you promised to exercise more this year.
- Reader, are you going to exercise this year?
How about this:
- Reader, you really ought to think about recycling.
- Do you recycle, Reader?
And here’s one more:
- Reader, healthy eating is good for you, you know.
- 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:
- Don’t ask a question when the person reliably does whatever it is you’re asking about because they’d be miffed.
- 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?