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How to Change People Who Don't Want to Change

In our latest BS 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?”

Good Luck,
David

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David Maxfield

David 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.
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13 thoughts on “How to Change People Who Don't Want to Change”

  1. Hmmm…Are you assuming that the spouse wants to change? This only works if the spouse has verbalized this notion in some way. Otherwise, asking this question out of the blue will serve only as an irritant and probably elicit defensiveness. The energy is no different from a demand.

  2. Some readers have asked for some greater context around influential questions. Please see David’s response:

    The “Big Idea” behind asking influential questions is this: The person doesn’t need more information. They already have all the facts they need. What they need is to evaluate the facts, and apply them to themselves.

    Any questions that help them to evaluate the information they already have—and apply it to themselves will work.

    Common mistakes we all make:
    1. When we argue for one side of an issue that has two sides, we force the other person to argue the other side. This often plays itself out: I want my son to stop what he’s doing, and complete his homework. I argue for why he should—which forces him to argue for why he shouldn’t.
    2. People hate to be controlled or talked down to. Any statement or question that comes across as patronizing or controlling will evoke reactance. The other person will react by trying to prove how independent they are—that you can’t control them.
    3. We have to be careful to avoid “Influential Questions” that come across at controlling or patronizing. There is no single or simple rule for avoiding this. The principle I try to keep in mind is: the truth will eventually come out. If I encourage an honest non-manipulative evaluation, the person will eventually reach the best decision. (This requires more than a little faith and patience some times!).
    4. If we summarized “Asking Influential Questions” as “Get them to argue FOR change, instead of AGAINST change.” I fear we would create manipulative questions that could backfire.

    Examples of Influential Questions
    1. Could you explore the pluses and minuses of changing versus not changing. Could you explain the overall impact it will have on you?
    2. On a scale from 1 to 10, on how likely you are to make this change, you selected a 3. Could you explain why you selected a 3, rather than a 2? Could you explain why you didn’t select a 4?
    3. You’ve always said that you want to become a physician. But now you’re saying you don’t want to do your chemistry homework. I know these aren’t the same thing, but can you tell me more about how you want to balance your short-term and long-term interests?

    To learn more about this kind of motivation strategy, check out Motivational Interviewing by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick.
    http://www.amazon.com/Motivational-Interviewing-Helping-People-Applications/dp/1609182278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1420660837&sr=1-1&keywords=motivational+interviewing

  3. I LOVE your information! It’s informative, instructive, and inspiring. I like what you said in the video, and I was easily able to apply it to my life. Or rather, I was able to see how my wife applied the principles.

    When my wife wants me to do something, or not do something, and she harps and harangues me about it…I tend to dig in my heels and resist her, or even battle her (verbally and emotionally). My beneath the surface message to her is “I’m not bad and wrong! I want to be respected.”

    The other night as we were lying down to sleep, she used a different approach; she asked me “Why…?” Her entire tone of voice was supportive and sincere. I then silently asked myself the same question. My reaction was entirely different, and the next day I took steps a direction that got me unstuck and the results have been wonderful. She didn’t have to make me feel like a loser, and rub my nose in it, to get the result that she wanted for me all along. And I got to save face.

    Without knowing it, she applied the principles you BS guys espoused in the video. Thanks, guys!

  4. Really great information. I’ve been trying to change some bad habits of my own and this video caused me to think about how I would have launched into an all out lecture if I caught one of my kids doing the same behavior. If I care about them, why not myself! This is causing me to do some true “soul searching.”

    Thanks, BS Guys!

  5. I watched this immediately before having a conversation with an employee that I was prepared to lecture. What timing! I will be questioning instead – thanks BS guys. 🙂

  6. Any advice for applying this lesson/technique to helping a 14 year old grandson not lie to his grandfather (me) about silly stuff: (e.g. Did you like the lunch I made for you? Yes, it was great! (after I found it in the garbage can untouched.) Do you know where the new x-box controller is? My friend accidentally picked it up when he was getting ready to leave. (Actually the friend had his own game and controller and I saw “my controller” after both boys’ stuff was packed and ready to be taken home.) Also, how to approach the 14 year old about “stealing” small bottles of liquor. Any help is appreciated.

  7. “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

    On numerous occasions, this “prayer” has helped me keep things in perspective and this was especially evident during this election season.

    Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The outcome of the election was something I had no control over. I couldn’t control who people voted for but I could get out and cast my vote!

    The courage to change the things I can. I asked myself, “What can I do to help my candidate?” I could go out and walk precincts or volunteer at a phone bank and that’s what I did.

    And the wisdom to know the difference. This is the most difficult part. Letting go.

    Trying to manipulate change will not work. You must first ask yourself, “What is YOUR motivation to want this change?” especially in someone else. If it’s a selfish reason, than heed Joel Osteen’s quote “Drop It. Leave It. And Let It Go”. But if your reason is out of care, concern, and selflessness for the other person (e.g. health reasons) than approach it with the same care and concern you would like someone to approach you.

    Also, keep the word “You” entirely out of the discussion; “You need to do this because…” or “You have to do that because…” and replace it with the word “I”. “I’m really concerned…”, “I’m really scared…”, “I want to help…”, and “I LOVE YOU!”

  8. I know this is a dicey question but is there something I could say to someone I care about who wants to have an abortion – I have known others who have had an abortion and it hurt them in more and deeper ways they never expected and I don’t want that to happen to her.

    1. Abortion is an extremely sensitive and emotionally charged subject to address and/or discuss. Maybe if you uncover the reason(s) as to why this gal is contemplating having an abortion, you could possibly offer some help and assistance (BUT NOT ADVICE). There are pro-life resources available but ultimately the decision is up to her.

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