By Katie Gilbert, published on April 5, 2006 - last reviewed on October 11, 2013
I'm desperate. Two friends are stranded at the airport an hour away, and I lack the wheels to make the trip. Someone will have to give me a ride to save them—and soon. But I'll have to issue the favor gracefully, seeing as it's a rather large request and I don't have an especially deep pool of friends with cars.
What do I do? According to social psychologist Michele Breault of Truman State University in Missouri, it may be time to pull out the box of "getting what you want" tools. This box should remain in storage most of the time, but for crises such as this, a dusting-off is in order.
To understand the power of these techniques, just watch for them in the carefully choreographed words and movements of someone whose living depends on consumer compliance, like a car salesperson. But these techniques can be stored up anyone's sleeves, not just those of salespeople, who want you to cough up your dough. Plus, knowing how to get what you want will make you more savvy and better prepared if the techniques are used on you.
In this aptly named technique, the persuader makes a ridiculously large request, knowing the other person is sure to reject it. He then follows up with a favor that is more reasonable.
Researchers uncovered the power of this approach some years ago by studying a group of college students. The students were first asked to volunteer as camp counselors two hours per week for two years. When they rejected the request, a second favor was asked: Would you be willing to supervise a two-hour trip?
Among the subjects who only heard the second request, 17% agreed. But among those who had heard both requests, 50% agreed. The secret power of this approach is reciprocity. Because we see the second request as a lesser burden—and therefore a favor to us—we are likely to give in out of perceived obligation.
The person interested in doing the persuading hooks her target with a small request, then follows up with a larger one. For instance, if you ask a neighbor to take your dog for a walk on one occasion, he is more likely to concede when you later ask that this become a weekly favor.
This approach succeeds because we prefer to keep a consistent view of ourselves. The favor-doer says to himself: "I'm the type of person who does favors for my neighbors, so it makes sense to fulfill this request, too."
Low-balling starts out with a small, manageable request that the potential favor-doer will agree to. Then, before the favor is executed, the persuader ups the ante and explains that the favor is actually larger than previously described. An example: Ask a friend to bring a small dessert to a party, and when she agrees you remember that you'd like her to bring a main dish as well. Her drive to stay consistent will prompt her to accede to your request and bring a main dish.
Remember: These are tools to be used in careful moderation. Overuse will only make you look pushy. There's no reason to cross over to the dark side of manipulation; you can get what you want without being excessive or forceful. In fact, you can be persuasive with a gentle touch.