Asking someone to do something rarely gets the results you’re after. In fact, it will likely backfire, writes Yale psychologist Michael Pantalon in a new book for anyone frustrated at not being able to entice a stubborn person to do things differently. “When someone tells us that we have to do something, it may set us up for a virtually irresistible compulsion to do the exact opposite,” notes the author.
The six-step method Pantalon describes in Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything Fast has a success rate of nearly 100 per cent, he claims, and takes no more than seven minutes to implement. “I developed it at the request of busy emergency room doctors seeking to motivate patients who came into the ER because of alcohol-related accidents and medical problems. The doctors had about seven minutes to influence semi-inebriated patients who didn’t necessarily see themselves as needing help.”
After first acknowledging a person’s resistance to change, which is a “surprisingly effective way to get people to be less defensive,” ask your subject how willing they are, on a scale from one to 10, to do the thing they don’t want to do. Take the husband who wants to skip a weekly dinner with his wife’s family so he can stay home to watch the game, writes Pantalon. “If you ask [your wife] flat out, her first response might very well be, ‘Yes, I mind. I’d rather you come with me.’ Her brain simply hears ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Instead, say something like, “I’d like to run something by you. There’s something I’d like to do, and I want to get a sense of how you feel about it. On a scale of one to 10, how ready do you think you might be to let me off the hook this Sunday so I can stay home and watch the game?’ ”
Now, writes Pantalon, “Your wife has to think about it. Even if she says the answer is one—‘I’m not ready to do that at all,’ you can still respond by asking her, ‘So what would it take to turn that one into a two.’ ” This line of questioning leads her to tell you what it would take to change her mind, he writes.
Next ask the person to imagine the outcome. The husband who wants to watch the game should ask his wife, “What do you think when you imagine me not being there?” As Pantalon describes it, “She might think, ‘Well, I’d be a little bit embarrassed showing up without him, but come to think of it, I’d love to have some time alone with Mom, and I love playing with Sue’s new baby, and I really can’t do that if I have to make sure my husband is having a good time.’ At least now she’s thinking about the possibility of your not coming, instead of dismissing the idea.”
Then ask the person why changing might be good for them. Pantalon’s father was initially unwilling to quit smoking or listen to what he called Pantalon’s badgering about it. So Pantalon asked him to imagine in what ways quitting would be positive. “Dad looked down at the cigarette in his hand. ‘I wouldn’t be smoking right now,’ he said almost ruefully.” Pantalon then asked him, “Why would that be good for you?” That was followed by “a long pause. I had to draw on all my training not to speak. I counted silently, forcing myself to keep quiet, so that Dad could have as much time as he needed to wrestle with the problem on his own. Finally, he said, ‘Because I’d be in my backyard right now, instead of making [my grandkids] wait so I could have another cigarette.’ ”
His father “had moved from total resistance to the powerful discovery of his most important reason to quit smoking. As soon as he stopped arguing with me about badgering him, he had the chance to realize how much he wanted to give up the habit that kept him from his grandsons.”
Once you’re at this point, ask the person: “What’s the next step?” Here, prepare yourself for a backlash, warns Pantalon. “My father, like many people who are reluctant to change, wanted to regain control of the conversation. So he found a way to make the goal his own by putting me down.” His father said: “My friend told me about this new medication I should take to quit smoking. I’ll ask my doctor about it. Why didn’t you tell me about the medicine, Michael, since you’re so smart. How come you didn’t let me know, since you’re a big psychologist at Yale?”