Ask, Don’t Tell

Excerpted with permission from “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind” (pp. 33-38) by Jonah Berger

Note from Bob: in 10 years of blogging with more than 1100 posts, I have been privileged to share a multitude of Great Questions – which in turn, I trust, have been a catalyst for many leaders to move from “Leading by Telling” to “Leading With Questions!”   However, I don’t think there has ever been a blog post articulating as clearly as Jonah Berger has in his book “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind” – why questions are so much more effective in motivating people than commands.  Today’s excerpt will give you just a taste of Jonah’s wisdom – You will want to buy his book to enjoy the whole meal! 

Nafeez Amin co-owns Sherpa Prep, a test prep and admissions consulting company in Washington, DC. The company runs GMAT and GRE courses, and for more than a decade it has helped hundreds of students get into some of the best graduate programs in the country.

In the early days, though, Nafeez noticed the same problem coming up again and again: students weren’t studying enough.

In addition to helping run the company, Nafeez often steps in to teach courses. Most students haven’t taken math for several years, and the GMAT doesn’t allow test takers to use a calculator, so the first day usually starts with some fundamentals of arithmetic. In addition, Nafeez briefly goes over course logistics. Encouraging the students to form study plans or tell friends that they are taking the course to encourage accountability.

But when he spoke to students, Nafeez noticed a huge disparity between their expectations and the kind of work that GMAT success would require. Many had no idea what they were in for. Everyone was applying to the same top ten schools, assuming that with just a little effort they would get in. Students didn’t understand that top schools often had a 5 percent acceptance rate, even among really qualified applicants.

Many came in thinking about how they had destroyed the SATs or done well on tests in the past. But this was a different pool. It wasn’t high school anymore. His students were going against people who’d not only graduated college but had done well enough to think seriously about graduate school. It was a smarter subset. Just doing whatever they’d done before wasn’t going to be enough.

When Nafeez asked students how much they planned to study outside of class, the numbers he got back were shockingly low. Five hours a week, most would say; ten tops. Around fifty hours by the end of the course. Nowhere near the two hundred or three hundred hours it usually takes for people to get the scores they need.

But when Nafeez tried to tell students that, all he got back were blank stares. Students either didn’t believe him or were so overwhelmed that they dropped out. It came across as pretty harsh on the first day. Who is this guy to tell me I need to study more?

Nafeez didn’t want to be demotivating, but he wanted students to be realistic. He wanted them to realize that they needed to spend more hours studying outside of class. That it was going to be harder than they anticipated. That it was going to take longer. That it was going to be a process.

So instead of telling students what they needed to do, Nafeez started asking about what they wanted. The next time he taught a class, he started by asking,

“Why are you here?”

“What’s your goal?”

“Why are you taking the GMAT?”

“I want to get into a top business school,” one student said.

“Okay. Do you know what it takes to get into a place like that?” Nafeez asked.

“I’ve got to get a 720,” one student replied. “A 750,” said another.

“How’d you get to that number?” Nafeez asked.

Different students chimed in, and the group started having a conversation. Through the process, it came out that around 250,000 people take the GMAT every year. For the top twenty MBA programs, the enrollment is around 10,000. That means lots and lots of people competing for a small number of slots. The students started realizing this was going to be tougher than they thought.

Once this sunk in, Nafeez started guiding the conversation to where he wanted to end up in the first place: how much they needed to study. “So, to get a score that places you in that top percentile, how many hours a week do you think you’ll need to study?” Nafeez asked.

Rather than just guessing or throwing out numbers offhand, the students realized they didn’t know the answer. So they started asking Nafeez questions. “You’ve done this for a while, what do you think?” one student asked. “How much does someone like me usually have to study to get a score that will get me into a top program?”

A lightbulb had gone on.

Now when Nafeez threw out the three-hundred-hour number, everyone listened. They did the division and realized that they were not going to be able to pack in three hundred or so hours over a ten-week course in five hours a week. They had to adjust their plans. And by the end of the discussion the students ended up tripling the number of hours that they said they were going to study.

Using questions boosted outcomes. Nafeez found that students studied more, got more out of the course, and did better on the test. Not because he told them how much to study, but because he helped them reach that realization on their own.

Questions do a couple things. First, like providing a menu, questions shift the listener’s role. Rather than counterarguing or thinking about all the reasons they disagree with a statement, listeners are occupied with a different task: figuring out an answer to the question. How they feel about it or their opinion. Something most people are more than happy to do.

Second, and more importantly, questions increase buy-in. Because while people may not want to follow someone else’s lead, they’re much more likely to follow their own. The answer to the question isn’t just any answer; it’s their answer. And because it’s their own personal answer, reflecting their own personal thoughts, beliefs, and preferences, that answer is much more likely to drive them to action.

Warning labels and public health campaigns often provide information, but they do so in the form of declarations: “Junk food makes you fat” or “Drunk driving is murder.”

The goal is to be direct, but these approaches often come across as preachy, which generates reactance and activates defensive responses: There’s no way junk food makes you fat; I know lots of people who eat at McDonald’s and they never seem to gain weight. Or: The ad is exaggerating. My friend drove drunk last week, and no one died. Particularly if people feel strongly about the issue, being too forceful can make them feel threatened and lead the messages to backfire.

The same content, though, can be phrased in terms of a question: Do you think junk food is good for you?

If a person’s answer to that question is no, they’re now in a tough spot. Because, by asking them to articulate their opinion, the question has encouraged them to put a stake in the ground. To consciously admit that junk food isn’t good for them. And once they’ve done that, it becomes harder to keep eating it.

Questions encourage listeners to commit to the conclusion. To behave consistently with whatever answer they gave.

Nafeez asked students what they wanted to achieve, but he didn’t pick that question randomly. He picked it knowing that the students’ answers would guide them to where he wanted them to go all along.

An executive for a medical device company was having trouble getting salespeople to mentor their subordinates. She sent email after email and had meeting after meeting, encouraging senior employees to guide the younger people they were supposed to be managing.

But pushing wasn’t working. Compensation depended on the number of sales made, so managers preferred to spend their time closing deals rather than training others.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, the executive finally asked one of the salespeople, “How did you learn to become such a successful salesman? Where did you learn all those techniques you use today?”

“Oh, I learned from Tim, my old manager who used to work here,” the salesman replied.

The executive thought for a moment and then responded, “Well, then how will your team become better salespeople if they don’t learn from you?”

Now that salesman is one of the best mentors in the company.

Trying to change company culture or to get a team to go along with a tough reorganization? Rather than taking a predetermined plan and pushing it on people, catalysts do the opposite. They start by asking questions. Visiting with stakeholders, getting their perspectives, and engaging them in the planning process.

This approach has two benefits. First, it gathers information about the problem—not just from survey data or abstract anecdotes but from the real people who are dealing with it every day. Which will make the solution more effective.

Second, and more importantly, when it comes time to roll things out, everyone is more likely to be on board. Because rather than feeling like a declaration that’s imposed on them, it’ll be a shift they feel they participated in. They’ve already committed to the conclusion, which will make them more willing to go along with the work to get there—which will speed the change.

Ask, don’t tell.

Click HERE to purchase “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind” today!







Good News from Bob: If you missed the one-hour Webinar with Dr. Michael Marquardt and myself, hosted by Becky Robinson, sharing “How Leaders Find POWERFUL ANSWERS BY KNOWING HOW AND WHAT TO ASK” from the just released 3rd Edition of “Leading With Questions” click HERE


Jonah Berger


Jonah Berger is a Wharton School professor and internationally bestselling author of Magic WordsContagiousInvisible Influence, and The Catalyst.  Dr. Berger is a world-renowned expert on natural language processing, change, word of mouth, influence, consumer behavior, and why things catch on. He has published over 80 articles in top‐tier academic journals, teaches one of the world’s most popular online courses, and popular outlets like The New York Times and Harvard Business Review often cover his work. Berger has keynoted hundreds of major conferences and events like SXSW and Cannes Lions, advises various early-stage companies, and consults for organizations like Apple, Google, Nike, Amazon, GE, Moderna, and The Gates Foundation.


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