question helps people change

Nobody likes being told what to do. Even if you have someone’s best interests at heart, if they feel that you are being bossy or intrusive they are likely to switch off and ignore your advice.

But researchers have found a way to get your message across in a way that is less likely to offend or affront the other person. The trick to changing another person’s behaviour, according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, is asking a question in a new way.

Calling it the “question-behaviour effect” the researchers noted that if you ask a person about how they plan to behave in the future they will be more likely to acknowledge that they do want to change.

For instance instead of telling someone that they really should do some exercise (which never really goes down well), you could ask them if they are going to commit to an exercise plan for the new year.

This type of questioning requires them to give a yes or no answer, not an excuse or a reason not to do it. Saying ‘no’ to such a question would most likely cause the person to question themselves and their values, making it more likely that they would say yes (and then make it happen).

It’s thought that this is because the yes/no response causes people to feel a bit uncomfortable if they say no to something that they actually believe they should be doing - like getting their superannuation or home insurance sorted out.

It also doesn’t give them an option to commit half-heartedly or at a later date – it’s specifically yes or just plain no, with no grey area.

In their study, the researchers found that the effect of the questioning was most effective if not asked in person. A written questionnaire or online survey was more likely to give a positive response.

If you’d like to try this out for yourself, why not try sending a text, email or hand written note to someone where you ask the hard questions. You could ask your hard-working son “do you think you will regret working late most nights when your kids are all grown up?” You could ask your partner “could we sit down together on Saturday to discuss the changes to our pension?”

One of the positive benefits of asking these questions is that it shines a light on the behaviour itself. The other person may not have realised that they were acting in a way that could be detrimental to their health, their family, or their future.

In a way you are just highlighting the issue and letting them come to their own conclusion. This is much less intrusive or likely to cause friction than if you just said “why do you work such long hours?” or “when are we going to talk about our future?”

Try it for yourself and see if you can gently encourage your friends and loved ones to make positive steps to change their behaviour.

What yes or no questions would you like to ask your friend, child or spouse?

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