Want behavioral change? Ask the right questions

Yesterday I was in the office of Ted Harris, Transit Operations Manager.  On his white board was a sign that read:

How can we…?

During our conversation, I found myself referring to that sign over and over again.  This morning I read a blog by Tammy Lenski Can one good question change behavior? and found myself inspired.

We are so conditioned to making requests, demands really, and telling people what we want.  We use “I” statements such as “I want you to…” and hope to influence behavior.  We tell rather than ask.  

Yet telling doesn’t work all that well according to recent messaging research. Asking rather than telling was more likely to influence behavioral change. Asking  prompts a different psychological response than making a statement.

I suspect that over time we will understand the neuroscience behind this, and I have a theory.  Our brains are pretty efficient, perhaps even a bit lazy.  When we “tell,” the brain of the person receiving our message quickly searches for neurons that hold similar information.  When we ask the right question, the brain begins making connections between neurons, building new neuropathways.

Some questions have more impact than others.  The use of the word “will” has a stronger effect than the use of more passive words like “would” or “could.”

“Will” is a form of the verb “to be” and implies ownership and action.

There is a huge difference between starting the question with “Can” versus “How can…?”  “Can” is about ability, and will probably elicit a yes or no answer.  “How can…” stimulates creative thinking and possibility.  It’s a pretty nifty trick often used by salesmen. “How can…” circumvents the “no.”

While changing habitual behavior is challenging, asking for small changes can result in substantial change over time.

The next time you want to effect change, follow Ted Harris’s lead and post a sign on your white board to remind yourself to ask “How can we….?”

In the word question there is a beautiful word – questI love that word.  We are all partners in a quest.   —Ellie Weisel

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