I met Dan Norris in August 2004 when I attended the Principles of Persuasion Workshop®. Dan was the workshop facilitator and did a terrific job. He’s been a Cialdini Method Certified Trainer, one of less than two-dozen worldwide, for 15 years. In addition to being a CMCT®Dan has been the Director of Training for HOLT CAT since 2003. I invited him to contribute to Influence PEOPLE because of his vast knowledge of ethical influence. I know you’ll enjoy his writing and learn a lot from his post. If you’d like to connect with Dan reach out to him on LinkedInor Twitter.
Over time, I learned more than just the latest gossip: I realized people spent the majority of their time “telling” others what they thought and very little time asking questions. In many cases, we spend enormous amounts of energy arguing points others already agree with. We are just too busy “telling” to listen to what others have to say.
I reflected on myself. Was I any different? (Spoiler alert: Nope.) I thought about all the times I belted out what I thought I needed to say. I’d deceive myself and say “I’m just telling you how it is,” oblivious to others needs or perspective. Looking back, it took me significantly longer to get things done when I would “cut to the chase” and tell. All too often, I felt I had to rehash issues several times before they were finally resolved.
Of course, I used to think others were slow or didn’t “get it.” The truth is that I was the slow one. My lack of questions and assumptions made it exceptionally difficult for me to hear what others were saying—and modify my behavior accordingly.
After this realization, I read every book I could find on questioning and communication. I attended seminar after seminar on the subject. I also spent mentored with people who asked great questions (I’m looking at you, Larry Mills!). It made a tremendous difference in my life—especially in terms of how I influenced others.
One memorable example of how questioning changed my influence approach came while coaching an employee named Harvey. At the time I was the new director of training at a large equipment dealership. It was common for me to spend time coaching others to reach their developmental goals.
However, this situation was different. The supervisor shared with me the person frequently made disparaging remarks about his co-workers, and appeared to have a very “negative attitude.” At the end of describing the employee’s behaviors, the manager leaned forward and curtly shared that “This is his last shot. I’ve told him A THOUSAND TIMES that he needs to change and he hasn’t. If you can’t help him, he’s out.”
I gave the meeting a lot of thought. In the past, I would use the same template that many others use—tell the employee they have a problem, tell them what the problem is, and tell them what will happen if the problem isn’t resolved. They would reluctantly agree to the findings of the meeting and leave. Sometimes they changed…sometimes they didn’t.
Then it hit me—his supervisor probably “told” him 999 times too many. Despite failing each time, his supervisor continued to use the ineffective approach of “telling.” I’m sure it lead Harvey to be as frustrated as his supervisor.
I decided to use questions in this coaching session to change the direction and try to salvage the working relationships. To avoid falling back on my “telling” habits, I made a list of all the things I could gain by asking questions:
Questions reveal information I don’t already know.
“Telling” only shares information I’m familiar with…it doesn’t reveal how others are feeling, their perspective, or provide opportunities to influence. Questions help me better listen to the needs, interests, and positions of others.
Questions influence others to make commitments.
When I ask questions of others, they make commitments about what they feel and believe. If I say what needs to happen, others can doubt me. If I get others to tell me what needs to happen, they feel more committed to the solution. Dr. Robert Cialdini’s landmark book Influence: Science and Practicecalls this the Principle of Consistency.
Questions involve others in the conversation
Telling pushes people away. Questions invite others into the discussion. People want to express themselves and be heard. They are more likely to listen to me if I listen to them first.
Questions influence people to reframe how they view the situation.
Questions are highly persuasive. They are excellent ways to ethically influence others to experience private, inner changes about how they view a situation. Another take away from Dr. Cialdini’s work.
I reflected on these four reminders. “That makes sense,” I thought. “Now how the hell do I use it?” Channeling sage advice from a dear mentor, I resolved to write down several questions ahead of our conversation to prepare.
When the time came, Harvey sat down sheepishly in my office. I could see in his eyes that he expected another didactic lecture about his behavior. After offering him some water, I pulled up a chair next to him.
“Thanks for meeting with me, Harvey. Before we get started, would you mind if I asked you some questions?”
“Sure,” said Harvey in a skeptical tone.
“How clear do you think I am about what happens in your department on a daily basis?”
Harvey tilted his head and appeared surprised by the question. “I suppose you don’t know a lot about what goes on directly…probably only what you’ve heard.”
“I’d certainly agree with that,” I said. “What role do you see me playing in our company?”
Harvey thought some more. “Well, you’re the training guy. I guess you’re responsible for helping people grow and get better.”
“You’re right,” I replied. “I work with people at all levels of the company on their performance. Since you and I don’t work closely together, I want to make sure I have some clarity about your goals before we move forward. I wouldn’t want to make any recommendations without understanding your plans for growth. How does that work for you?”
“Makes sense,” he replied. His body language became more relaxed. His shoulders dropped, and he became more comfortable in his chair.
“Great,” I said. “Now I hope you stay with us for your whole career. Whether you work for the company for five, 10, or even the next 30 years—what do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be known?”
Harvey paused in thought for a moment. “Nobody’s ever asked me that. I guess I would like to be the ‘go to’ person. I’d like to be the person that others would trust coaching new employees or handling difficult tasks. I want to be the person that is a ‘slam dunk’ for the next promotion.”
“I’m sure you have the talent to do so,” I replied. “That said, I’d like to ask you another question: When you use disparaging and negative language about others, how does that match the vision you just described?”
He paused as his eyes widened. “I never thought about it like that. I guess it doesn’t.”
“You’re right,” I acknowledged. “How does that behavior position you as the next best leadership candidate?”
He began shaking his head. “Well, I guess it doesn’t make me a strong candidate. I never thought of it that way. I was just trying to be funny—I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”
It was clear that Harvey was beginning to see things differently. “The past is the past, Harvey. We all make mistakes or send messages to others that we don’t intend. Going forward, what are some things you might do to change your behavior?”
Harvey began discussing ideas that he could change. His entire demeanor changed. He became energized and focused. He wanted to make the changes. He wanted to fit the vision he had for himself. We talked for some time as he created an action plan for himself.
I had one final question before we ended our meeting. “I know that you’re the type of person that can make changes like this happen. There is no doubt your capable of rebranding yourself. However, I think it’s important to reflect on what may happen if you choose not to change. If you don’t go through with these changes, what the consequences would you expect?”
Harvey sat back in his chair thinking. “Well,” he thought, “I imagine I’d be up for disciplinary action. I’d expect to be written up.”
I was floored—his honesty was as surprising as it was refreshing. I committed to support and coach him. He was energized and ready to work on his relationships with others. I called his supervisor to fill him in on our discussion. He was dumfounded. He couldn’t believe Harvey was receptive. He laughed and said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Harvey did change —dramatically. He took ownership for his behavior and worked very hard to repair the relationships he had with others. Harvey had no idea how his behavior affected others. True to his vision, he now leads others and is a sought after coach.
Dr. Cialdini’s Principle of Consistency—influencing others to make a choice or take a stand on an issue—was the primary reason Harvey changed his behavior. Questions revealed new information, involved Harvey in the conversation, influenced him to make commitments, and reframed how we all saw the situation. It ethically changed the way we viewed the situation and provided a win-win for everyone involved.
I’m sure you have a “Harvey” in your life. What questions are you asking them?
Dan Norris, CMCT®