An exercise I like to do with audiences in workshop settings is to have two people come to the front of the room and standing about two arms lengths apart facing each other. I then ask one of the individuals to slowly move towards the person standing opposite them. As the gaps between the two individuals closes, the person standing still will invariably fold their arms, adopt an uncomfortable posture and often takes a step backwards.
In many ways this is symbolic of what happens when we try to influence others. In making our case, explaining our logic or making our point, we are effectively taking a threatening steps towards another person or group. Their instinctive response will likely be to clam up or move away.
In contrast, notice what happens next time you are in conversation with another person in a social setting. As you are speaking with them, slowly take a few very small steps backwards over the course of a minute or so and watch what happens. Nine times out of ten, they will move towards you. The same goes for persuasion – a good question often invites much more engagement than a barrage of strong arguments.
One kind of question that is essential for persuasion is that which guides the responder towards the right conclusion. The legendary 1980 presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter stands as one of the most effective examples of this principle. Unseating an incumbent is always a tall order and Reagan knew that Carter’s handling of the economy was a point of weakness. However, rather than quoting spiralling unemployment and inflation figures, Reagan simply asked a question that turned the tide in his favour in the blink of an eye. During a live televised debate, he simply asked viewers “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Being on live television, this was an entirely rhetorical question. But the answer that voters gave in their minds influenced their thinking in profound and permanent ways. This is often regarded as the moment when the 1980 election was decided.
A number of years ago, three researchers by the name of Petty, Cacioppo & Heesacker explored what type of arguments were most persuasive in shifting the views of senior school students. Their research had a profound effect on educational practices as it revealed the degree to which students were significantly more persuaded when arguments were presented in a rhetorical manner. For instance, arguments that were worded to say “Don’t you agree that…” or “Isn’t it true that…” were powerfully influential because they caused the students to relate the arguments to their own lives and experience.
The persuasive power of questions finds some of its strongest potential in the sales industry. In one study conducted by two communication scientists, passers-by were approached at random in shopping centres by clipboard-toting researchers who were trying to persuade consumers to try an unfamiliar new soft drink. While very few people were willing to give up their contact information in order to receive a sample of the new product, the trajectory of the interaction changed dramatically when it was kicked off by a question: “Do you consider yourself to be somebody who is adventurous and likes to try new things?” When asked this question, most people said they were adventurous and just over three quarters of them went on to willingly volunteer their email address in order to receive a free sample.
Questions find further use in sales in the powerful commitment technique known as ‘choice questions’ that move another party to a point of action or resolution. For instance, if options have been discussed and ideas fleshed out, sometimes a question is the best way to land the conversation. For instance, you might ask whether a potential customer would like to purchase using a credit card or whether they’d like you to invoice them later? Or you could ask whether they would like to pick up their order or have it delivered? Or you could ask if they’d prefer to make a cash investment in the business or take an equity share instead. It’s easy to see how convincing this kind of question would be in sealing a deal.
Beyond directing people’s thinking and selling products, questions can act as a highly constructive way of diffusing a situation. In research examining the traits of expert negotiators, author and academic Neil Rackham suggests that injecting personal feelings into discussions in the form of questions as a powerful way to get tricky interactions unstuck. For instance, when an impasse is reached, highly effective negotiators might comment “I’m disappointed in the way this discussion has unfolded – are you?” or “I was hoping you’d see this proposal as fair – do I understand correctly that you don’t see any merit in this approach at all?” The power of this approach is that the questions are couched in the context of personal feelings and invite an opponent to do the same.
Any effective persuader knows the power of a good question. Questions pose enormous potential in directing all kinds of interactions to the desired outcome. Whether that is leading people to certain conclusions, selling a product or diffusing a difficult interaction, the right questions are keys to bring about the right answers.
 Rothkopf, D. 2017, The Great Questions of Tomorrow, Simon & Schuster, New York, Introduction.
 Luntz, F 2008, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear’, Hachette Books, New York, pp. 23, 224.
 Kolenda, N 2013, Methods of Persuasion: How to Use Psychology to Influence Human Behavior, Kolenda Entertainment.
 Cialdini, R A 2016, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, Cornerstone Digital, 26.
 Grant, A 2021, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Viking Press, New York.