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Why You're Probably a Lot More Persuasive Than You Think

... especially face-to-face.

Key points

  • Most people underestimate the influence they have over others, especially when asking for a favor or action.
  • People are more likely to say "yes" to requests made in person, instead of over e-mail.
  • Compensation or incentives for a favor, such as offering gas money to someone giving you a ride, does not make a significant difference.
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Source: highwaystarz/Adobestock

Imagine that your cell phone battery died while you were out shopping and you needed to make a phone call urgently. Your only choice would be to approach strangers and ask if you could use their phone. The thought of asking for this kind of favor sends prickles up the spines of most people.

In fact, in a study with this exact scenario, researchers asked participants to find three people who would agree to lend someone their cell phone. But before approaching strangers, participants had to guess how many people they would need to ask. On average, participants thought they would need to ask 10 people before three would lend their phones, but participants only needed to ask six people. That’s right—about half of the strangers who were approached agreed to let study participants use their phones.

What’s going on here? A growing body of research and a new book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, by Cornell social psychologist Vanessa Bohns explains that people underestimate the influence they have over others.

“When we are on the receiving end of a request, we know how incredibly awkward and uncomfortable it is to say no,” Bohns explained. “But when we are the ones doing the asking, my research shows that we underestimate how difficult it is for people to say no to us.

“The good news is this means we can get needed help more readily than we assume. The bad news is this also means people may feel less comfortable rejecting our romantic advances and unethical requests than we think.”

This is one of the reasons it can be difficult to decline something we don’t want to do, like take on a volunteer assignment or buy something we really don’t need. “We worry about hurting someone’s feelings, we worry about insinuating something negative about them or the relationship,” Bohns said. “It’s just really awkward and uncomfortable. And because of this, people often feel pressured to agree to do things they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with because they feel even more uncomfortable saying no.”

At the same time, this often-unrecognized ability to influence people can be very useful if you need help, such as needing to borrow a phone, or in circumstances when it’s important to convince people to take action, such as putting on a mask. Asking a direct question is more likely to yield results than most people realize.

Bohns’ research also shows that despite the common assumption that we need to offer incentives to get someone to agree to do us a favor, such incentives don’t make as much of a difference as we think. People are just as likely to agree to do small favors for us for free. So, the offer of gas money doesn’t make someone more likely to give us a ride to the airport. Research demonstrates that making these requests in-person—versus virtually, such as in an e-mail—is much more effective.

“There are some basic default assumptions of in-person communication that aren’t true for email, and so you have to overcome things that are missing in email communication,” she said. “For one, when talking to people face-to-face, we tend to trust that what they are telling us is true. In our research, we find that is not true when communicating virtually.

“Second, we tend to pay more attention to the people in our physical surroundings and we overhear what they are saying. Over e-mail, we need to work harder to establish trust and get people’s attention.”

The take-home message: These research findings suggest that we have more influence over others than we realize. By taking some clear steps, like asking a direct, in-person question, the chances of getting what we want are higher than we think.

LinkedIn image: Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

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