How to Change People Who Don’t Want to Change

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Guest Post by David Maxfield

In our latest Behavioral Science Guys video, we asked two boys to approach smokers on the street. Their goal was to get the smokers to consider quitting. They used one of two strategies: “tell” or “ask.” In the tell condition, they did what many have tried before—they told the smokers why they should quit. In the ask condition, the boys asked the smokers for a light. It was fascinating to see how the smokers responded.

When you’re trying to influence people who need motivation, but not information, don’t offer more information. Instead, use questions to create a safe environment where they can explore motivations they already have.

For example, suppose you want your spouse to improve his fitness. How would he respond to a lecture? He’d get defensive, right? So instead, try asking a question. “If you wanted to increase your fitness level, what changes would you need to make? And what would make those changes difficult or unpleasant?” This question creates a safe environment where he can examine the facts he already has.

The problem with reminding people of facts they already know is that it feels patronizing or controlling. People’s natural response is to resist and exert their independence. Psychologists call this “reactance.”

Think about how we usually try to get smokers to quit. Most smokers already have a grasp of the facts. They’ve read the warning labels and they’ve seen the public service announcements. More lectures aren’t likely to be very influential. So we wanted to test the power of influential questions.

We hired two boys to be our confederates. They approached smokers on the street to see if they could get them to consider quitting. In the tell condition, they used the traditional lecture approach, and then asked the smoker if they’d like information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers responded resentfully, and fewer than half took the paper with the information on how to quit.

In the ask condition, the confederates carried fake cigarettes, and asked the smoker for a light. The smokers’ reactions were dramatic. None offered a light, and none ignored the request. Instead, they stopped what they were doing, and began lecturing the kids on the dangers of smoking. The question prompted strong anti-smoking tirades—from the smokers themselves!

Then the kids asked a second influential question: “If you care about us, what about you?” Then they offered the information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers committed to trying to quit.

Did the smokers really quit? We don’t know. However, when the ad giant Ogilvy & Mather originated this study in Bangkok, Thailand, calls to the helpline went up 40 percent on the day of the experiment—showing that the influence extended beyond words to action.

Try this technique the next time you want to help someone take on a difficult change. Instead of repeating facts they already know, try asking questions. The goal is to allow them to explore their own motivations without feeling pushed by you. Below are a few questions you might try.

  • “What is it that makes you even consider changing?”
  • “If things worked out exactly the way you want, what would be different?”
  • “What are the pluses and minuses of changing or not changing?”
  • “If this change were easy, would you want to make it? What makes it hard?”

We hope you enjoy our research in video form. Please take a moment to watch and share with your friends and family.

Note from Bob:  So what changes in your children/spouse/staff members have you unsuccessfully tried to influence via lecture?  Instead of lecture – what questions might you ask?

DavidMaxfield headshot RDavid Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. David’s books include:  “Influencer – the New Science of Leading Change,”  “Change Anything – the New Science of Personal Success” and  “Crucial Accountability – Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations & Bad Behavior”

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Michael   |   27 March 2015   |   Reply

Fascinating. I am reminded of Counter Attitudinal Advocacy. It’s a persuasion theory based on cognitive dissonance. Simply put, you ask someone to advocate for something they are against. In order to overcome their hypocrisy induced cognitive dissonance they will often move towards the position they are advocating or even adopt it. So a smoker in a rant about the dangers of smoking likely experiences a fair amount of cognitive dissonance that they want to resolve. When given the opportunity to change their behavior to align with the position they advocated, they are more likely to change than if they were told to change.

Bob, you post the best stuff.

Bob Tiede   |   27 March 2015   |  

Michael that is really interesting – thank you very much! Your kind words are greatly appreciated.