Questions are to you and I as The Force is to Obi-Wan and Yoda.
As a kid, telling me what to do was essentially like telling me what not to do. Now that I'm older I realize that wasn't because I was a kid, it was because I was human. As I'm finding out with the recent vaccine mandate, I'm not the only person who hates being told what to do. To be human is to be stubborn in some way. Most often our resistance to something stems from an inherent conflict with our values or belief system. Other times we may resist because we don't like who or where the request came from. As a husband, brother, son, business owner, speaker, and coach, I have developed a vested interest in how to overcome the barrier of stubbornness in my fellow human beings.
We all have varying goals for the variety of titles we hold in life. To achieve those goals we'll need the cooperation of other people. Our ability to influence others is paramount to this end. What I'm discovering is influencing people's behavior is much simpler than I originally thought. In my last post, I introduced the Questions Matrix and we focused primarily on the response side.
In this post, we'll cover the reverse: how asking questions can influence the people in your life.
“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” -Yoda
If you read the first paragraph and thought, "Goals? Influence? Is he talking about manipulating people?" Absolutely not. If your intentions are to influence someone towards a desired result, you should constantly be checking your intentions against not only your own values, but the shared values of those involved. It's a balancing act. Where we get in trouble is when we become so focused on the desired outcome we forget to check our intentions. It's hard to say if anyone is ever intentionally malicious, but if in your pursuit of an outcome you failed to check your intentions, you are still responsible for the unintended consequences.
Questions Keep our Intentions in Check
A simple way to ensure our intentions are pure when striving towards an end result is to be the person asking questions. While it may seem more natural to be giving orders when you have an agenda, your influence will extend much further in the long run if you stick to questions. Questions aren't exclusive, they allow for contribution from the other person. It would be difficult to be even unintentionally malicious when asking questions as you're bringing their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs into the conversation. It is possible to point a conversation in a singular direction without making commands.
Take kindergarten teachers for example. When one student hits another student, of course they may tell them that hitting other people is wrong, but there is a good chance the offending student already knew that. If the teachers goal for the conversation is to get the student to feel guilt for doing so and to avoid that action in the future, a more effective, yet still intentionally pure approach would be to ask the student about why their actions were wrong. We aren't all kindergarteners, but with most adults I know, the principle still applies.
A Team Effort
Growing up I raised livestock and I hated doing the chores that came with it. I can't tell you how many times I got grounded because my mom told me to feed my animals and I just didn't. Interestingly enough, I remember the times she would come into my room and ask, "Have your animals eaten yet?" or, "Do you think your animals are hungry?" and without much thought I'd go and feed. The part of me that naturally goes against the grain and makes me want to do the opposite of what I'm told simply lies dormant when I'm being asked a question versus being told what to do. Experts call this rebel psychological reactance, and it simply means our brains go into "fight" mode when they sense something infringing upon our ability to choose. Questions help us avoid that state with those we are trying to influence by introducing the task at hand as something mutually beneficial. It becomes a team effort. People are much more likely to agree to something that is their decision. Questions take the goal from "yours" to "ours."
How to Ask
As we learned in the last article, cognitive dissonance is the difference between how we see ourselves and how we truly are. When questions are asked of us in regards to a specific behavior, we are much more likely to implement that behavior in the future. The same is true in the opposite. If we wish to influence the behavior of others, we must ask a question that includes that desired behavior. My wife demonstrated this on me the other night. We'd been away from home for a few weeks and the chore list was piling up. She read my mind as we entered the house and said, "Can we agree to ask each other for help instead of telling each other what to do?" I had to consciously swallow the words in my mouth and rethink my next sentence because I was planning on doing exactly what she just asked me not to do. Her influence was felt directly and immediately because she included a desired behavior in her question.
What was most astonishing is that before she even asked she knew the answer she was looking for. Which goes back to our intentions. If we are asking a question without having an ideal answer in mind, why are we asking? To influence the behavior of those around you in a positive direction, be sure to include a desired end result in your question.
The power of questions is an underutilized tool in many relationships; be it husband and wife, or teacher and student. Next time you want someone to do something, simply ask them. You may be surprised at how easy it was to accomplish.
For more on questions, leadership, or stories about feeding animals, feel free to visit my site.