The best ways to persuade people
I get really nervous about asking people for things. I hate confrontation, and I find it uncomfortable to ask for a favor or to try to persuade someone of my point of view.
It turns out, I’m not alone. Most people don’t like asking others for favors or trying to persuade them. But most of us also hate to say no. Which is great for those of us doing the asking, because it means people will cave in more often, since they just don’t want to turn us down.
But few of us know this about our fellow humans, so we tend to underestimate how willing people are to help us if we ask them to.
Several studies tested this by having participants first estimate how many people would agree before heading out to persuade strangers to do various things. The first example was a simple one: participants had to ask strangers to lend them their mobile phone. Participants estimated on average that they’d have to ask ten people before anyone said yes, but in reality they only had to ask an average of six people to get a yes.
Another study tested whether the size of the task would make a difference to how easily strangers could be persuaded to do it. Participants were tasked with asking strangers to fill out either a one-page or a ten-page survey. Amazingly, the odds for persuading strangers to participate remained the same across both tasks.
We tend to underestimate how willing people are to help us if we ask them to.
These researchers really wanted to learn about how to persuade strangers to do things. They did yet another study, this time making participants ask strangers to write the word “pickle” in a purported library book. In pen.
While many people expressed concerns about doing this task, participants were able to persuade over 64% of strangers they approached.
All these studies helped the researchers put together a theory that most people hate the awkwardness of turning someone down—even a stranger. A final study tested just how much people hate to say no by first having participants ask strangers to fill out a survey. For those participants who said no to this request, participants then asked them to take a letter from the participant and mail it.
Many people said yes to the request to mail a letter, even though it’s arguably a more inconvenient task than simply stopping to fill out a survey. These people, the researchers said, hated the awkwardness of saying no so much that rather than do it a second time, they preferred to take on a more inconvenient task than the one they’d already turned down.
Of course, not everyone is this averse to saying no. And, depending on the circumstances, most of us have situations where the awkwardness of saying no is not as bad as we feel agreeing would be.
But for those times when we’re on the fence, or willing to be persuaded from the “no” camp, let’s take a look at what you can keep in mind to encourage others to do things you suggest.
Persuading people to do things for you
I wouldn’t call these methods manipulation. In fact, I tried a couple of them on some local politicians recently, and was very disappointed in the results. So I hardly need to tell you to wield them wisely. These are very small adjustments, but they work, on average, by employing knowledge about what makes us rethink our own decisions and make different ones.
Use the word “willing” after you’ve met resistance
If someone has already said no, and you don’t want to give them a different task like mailing a letter, you may have more luck persuading them to do the original task with this approach. The word “willing,” it seems, is somewhat of a magic word when it comes to asking people to change their behavior.
One study asked people who’d been in an argument to try mediating the situation. Those who refused were then asked if they’d be willing to try mediating the situation.
As Psychologist Elizabeth Stokoe says, “if you ask someone ‘are you interested in mediation?’ they might say yes or no. But if you ask them if they’re willing to mediate, that requires them saying something about the type of person that they are.”
The difference, it seems, is that asking what someone is willing to do, rather than asking them directly to do something, changes that question about an immediate action to a question about what that person’s boundaries are. This makes them rethink their answer, as it brings their ideas about themselves as a person into the mix, rather than simply letting them make a quick decision about taking an action right now.
Stokoe warns, though, that this approach works best after meeting with resistance. So use this one as a backup when other approaches don’t work.
Use the phrase “you will probably refuse…”
Have you ever noticed how telling a kid to do something often makes them want to do the exact opposite? Or maybe you’ve even been this kid. You’re thinking about how you should clean your room when a parent walks in and gives you a roasting about how messy your room is, and tells you to clean it up. Well now that’s the last thing you’re going to do! There’s just something about being told we have to do something that makes us want to do the opposite.
Perhaps this comes from the fact that humans love to think we have a choice in everything. It doesn’t actually matter whether we do have a choice or not; we just need to feel like we do.
This approach taps into that mindset. When you start a request by saying, “You’ll probably refuse, but…” you tap into that person’s desire to prove you wrong. For instance, imagine someone raising money for charity stopped you on the street and said, “You’ll probably refuse, but would you like to help abandoned dogs with a donation?” Well, who among us wants to let a stranger be right about us not caring about abandoned dogs! Of course we want to prove them wrong by giving the dogs a donation.
One study tested this theory in a very similar situation. Researchers asked people to donate to charity in two different ways. Some people were asked directly, while others were asked like this:
You will probably refuse, but I wonder if you could help us by making a donation?“
While not everyone cared enough to prove the researchers wrong, the approach did work better than a direct ask for a donation. From those asked directly, 25% donated to the charity. From those told they would probably refuse, 39% donated.
It’s not 100%, but it’s certainly a bigger percentage, and it doesn’t take much effort to put this strategy into practice.
You might have used altercasting before without even realizing it. If you’ve ever suggested a friend, spouse, or colleague is particularly adept in an area before asking for a favor that relies on those exact skills, that’s altercasting. For instance, telling your spouse they’re a great cook before asking them to cook dinner. Or telling your friend that you always appreciate how generous they are, before asking for a loan.
Altercasting refers to casting that other person in a role. There are two ways altercasting can works. The first is called "manded” altercasting, which is what my examples are. This is when we don’t change our behavior at all, but we explicitly suggest a role for the other person.
The other method of altercasting is called “tact,” which is when we don’t explicitly suggest a role, but change our behavior to imply a role for the other person. For instance, if you make a mess and keep dropping things in an attempt to cook dinner until your spouse takes over, you’re implicitly suggesting the role of “good cook” for your spouse by showing how terrible you are in comparison. The reason altercasting works is because we tend to want to live up to the labels we’re given. When someone we care about tells us we’re a good cook, or we’re generous, we feel the need to prove them right, because we want to see those traits in ourselves, too.
But this can prove dangerous when suggesting negative roles for others, such as telling someone they’re slow, unproductive, or lazy. It’s probably best to only suggest positive roles when using altercasting. Try suggesting a role you think the other person would want to see themselves in to avoid using this technique in a way that feels manipulative.
Whether it’s a local politician, your spouse, or a colleague, there are plenty of times when we want to persuade someone else to do what we’re suggesting. These methods certainly won’t guarantee that you can get others to do your bidding, but if you’re attempting to persuade someone, try throwing in one of these strategies to give yourself a better chance of success.