I could see from my roster for the upcoming term that the infamous Eddie would soon be attending my Advanced ESL Writing class. Eddie was slowly making his way through our academic ESL program and was well-known for his sense of humor and for continually arriving late to class. Having heard from his previous teachers about the unsuccessful strategies they had tried to use to get him to come on time, I decided to try a different approach.
Coincidentally, around this time, I was preparing to make a proposal to our program director and instructors and was trying to decide how best to present it. To get our Writing Course students to read more, I decide to recommend that we assign them to read for an hour a week and write a brief reading journal. And in order to not add more work for the teachers, I was hoping we could hire a person or two be a “Reading Journal Reader” who would read and write comments on the journals. (For more details about using a “Reading Journal Reader,” see One of Best Uses of an ESL Program’s Funds—And a Giant Help to Teachers. )
Fortunately, I had recently listened to Psychologist Adam Grant’s podcast “Worklife” in which he tells about a skill we can use when we’re trying to initiate a request. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve found, it’s quite effective.
Instead of trying to get someone to say, “Yes,” Grant recommends that we start off by asking a question that elicits a “No.”
For example, consider two colleagues, Peter and Gail, who are offering a suggestion during a department meeting.
Peter introduces his idea by saying, “I think that we should … Do you think that’s a good idea?” Before answering “Yes, that’s a good idea” we’d probably need to think about all the implications in his idea.
On the other hand, Gail would usually start by asking, “I have an idea about …. Does this seem like a bad idea?” or “… Is that a ridiculous idea?” It would be very easy for us to quickly respond by saying, “No, that’s not a bad idea,” or “No, that’s not ridiculous.” Grant explains that after answering “No,” we will be more open to considering her idea.
Psychologist Adam Grant explains, “We always feel safe, secure and centered after we’ve said no. So, consequently, after somebody has said no, they’re more persuadable. Trying to get anybody to say ‘yes’ to anything, they instantly go into anxiety mode, like, ‘What am I not seeing, what’s the trap, what’s the trick here?’ Switching away from ‘Do you agree with this?’ to ‘Do you disagree?’ makes all the difference in the world. So, most of your ‘yes’ questions can be flipped just changing the first part of it, ‘Are you against…?’, ‘Is this a bad idea?’, ‘Is this ridiculous?’, Do you disagree?’, ‘Are you totally opposed to the idea?’”
So, when I was pitching my idea about paying for a reading journal reader, I didn’t say, “I think it would be a good idea to assign reading journals to our students and hire someone to read and comment on them. Do you think that’s a good idea?” and hope that they would say “Yes.”
Instead, I used Grant’s suggestion and said, “I have an idea about assigning reading journals … Would you be totally against the idea?” As a result, I felt the reaction was just as I had hoped for; my colleagues seriously considered my proposal. (And it was approved.)
And for Eddie, the student with the tardy-habit, instead of asking him, “Can you try to come to class on time?” I asked, “Does it seem like a bad idea to come to class by 1:30?” He smiled and answerer, “No. It’s not a bad idea.” And best of all, it seemed to work.
Here are some of the expressions recommended by Grant:
- Would you be totally against this idea?
- Is this a rediculous idea?
- Does thius seem like a bad idea?
- Would you completely disagree with that idea?
What a great idea! I love how this has application throughout life. I enjoy helping students understand not only how to communicate, but how to do so with greatest effectiveness. Thanks so much for this.
I’m happy to hear that you found this useful. Thank you for the comment.