work life

You’re More Persuasive Than You Think

Doctor demonstrating hypnosis
Photo: Oxford Science Archive/Heritage Images/Corbis/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

When you think of people who are really good at getting their way, particularly at work, visions of powerful or downright manipulative individuals likely come to mind: the suck-ups, the brown-nosers, the bullies. On the other hand, chances are high that a person you do not picture is yourself. Most people tend to underestimate their own ability to get other people to do what they ask, even though studies also show that this isn’t some special skill — most people are already more persuasive than they believe themselves to be. 

Research by Cornell psychologist Vanessa K. Bohns has consistently found that people doubt their ability to get others to comply with even the simplest requests. In one study Bohns published in 2008 in collaboration with her fellow organizational psychologist Francis J. Flynn, for example, undergraduates at Columbia University were asked how many strangers they thought they’d have to ask before one of them agreed to carry out a small task, such as lending them a cell phone or filling out a survey. Then Bohns and Flynn pushed their study participants out of the lab and onto campus to see how accurate their predictions turned out to be. 

In reality, as Bohns recounts in a recent piece for Harvard Business Review, the strangers were almost twice as likely to agree to the request than the students expected. They guessed, for example, that they’d have to ask ten people if they could borrow a cell phone before someone would let them; in reality, on average, the sixth person said yes. They also guessed that they’d have to ask about ten people before one would agree to fill out a questionnaire; in practice, it only took four asks on average to get a yes. 

Initially, Bohns and Flynn were interested in this line of research because it seemed to them to be an example of how we underestimate others, particularly when we ask people we don’t know for help. But lately, they’ve started looking at this in another way, Bohns told me in an email. Maybe instead it’s an example of how we underestimate our own influence over other people. In her HBR piece, Bohns notes an example of how this can play out in the workplace, citing a New York University survey of 40 full-time employees at white-collar companies, mostly in finance. The majority of the employees surveyed confided that they had concerns about ethics or basic workflow issues at their respective firms, but most of them also said that they kept those thoughts to themselves — and the reason many of them gave for not speaking up was that they doubted their words would change anything. 

But why do we underestimate our ability to influence people, or to get them to do what we want them to do? It’s in many ways a surprising phenomenon, because much of the psychological research shows that people tend to overestimate their own talent and abilities. Bohns and Flynn acknowledge this in a 2013 review of the literature and somewhat counterintuitively posit that it’s self-centeredness, or egotism, that causes what they call a “failure of perspective.”

People don’t consider the situation from the other person’s point of view, in other words. When you’re trying to get someone to do something for you, you likely pay a lot of attention to what it will cost the person to say yes. But most people also fail to acknowledge the potential cost of saying no. “No one wants to reject others, particularly not face-to-face,” Bohns and Flynn write. You may feel awkward asking for a favor, imagining that the other person will refuse, but the person being asked is likely also imagining the scenario in which he refuses. “In many cases, people are motivated to comply with a request for help in order to avoid the feelings of embarrassment that might be induced by noncompliance,” they write. In plainer terms: People will often say yes because they don’t want to look bad. 

That said, there are some ways to phrase your request that are more likely to work than others. No surprise, a direct question works better than tiptoeing around the subject. In that same 2008 study with the Columbia undergrads, Bohns and Flynn asked the students to try to get passersby to fill out a questionnaire, either indirectly (by handing them a flyer) or directly (by simply asking). The strangers were much more likely to fill out the questionnaire when asked directly than when handed the flyer. The real-life lesson, then, is that you can hint around at what you want all you like, but you’d be much better served if you just asked plainly. 

Other research in this area has shown that people are more likely to comply with a request if you give them a reason, even if that reason is kind of dumb. And if you try all these things and still don’t get what you want, don’t give up — try again. Bohns’ research has shown that people are more likely to say yes after they’ve said no once, perhaps because they feel guilty over the initial refusal. 

But the words you use when you ask matter, too. In another experiment in that 2008 study, some students were told to frame their question straightforwardly: “Would you fill out a questionnaire?” Others were told to first ask, “Can you do me a favor?” and then ask that same question. In the straightforward condition, 57 percent of the passersby complied; compare that to 84 percent of those in the favor condition. Your mom was right: People are happier to do what you want them to if you ask nicely. But first, you have to ask.

You’re More Persuasive Than You Think