Monday, June 7, 2010

The power of the question

This morning I walked my son to preschool, and then I had the option of walking home again (as I usually do, it's about the only exercise I get) or getting a lift with a friend. I have been down with a bad cold for the past week, and the lift seemed like a nice option. If my friend had said "Would you like a lift home?" I would have said yes. But instead, she said "Are you walking? I don't want to discourage you." So I said "Yeah, I'll walk."

It was not that I was uncomfortable asking for a lift, it is just that the way a question is worded has a big influence. Because her question was about walking, and implying it was a good thing to do, it made it easy for me to say yes to that. If she had mentioned a lift, and perhaps how cold it was today or how I was looking a bit tired/unwell, it would have been easier to say yes to that option. But I did my walk, I was fine and I quite enjoyed it and felt good about starting the day with a little exercise before getting to my desk.

I remember an episode of "Yes, Minister" (an English comedy about a politician and the civil service he has to deal with) where Sir Humphrey Abbleby (the civil service head of the department) shows an un underling how easy it is to get the answer you want. He talks about conscription: if you ask questions about duty, defending the country etc you can lead people to say they would be pro-conscription. But you can ask the same person how they feel about personal freedom to choose, and how they feel about arming teenage hooligans, and you can get them to say they are anti-conscription. It is all in the way you ask.

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