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Who Will Listen to You?

More people than you think.

Key points

  • People often assume that their ability to influence others is limited.
  • Yet research shows that in general, each of us is more influential than we think.
  • When asking for help, for example, strangers are almost as likely as friends to lend a hand.
  • Older people often take the advice of younger people, despite young people's fears that older, more experienced people won't listen to them.

When you want to convince another person to do something, voice a suggestion at work, or have a strong opinion you’d like to express, there are many factors to consider: What is the best way to phrase your request or persuasive case? What influence tactics should you use? Should you do it over email, or pick up the phone?

Before you can decide on any of that, however, the first question is: Who are you trying to influence? Who is likely to be more receptive to your position or appeal—and who less so?

Importantly, thinking a particular person, or type of person, will be less amenable to your suggestions could cause you to hold back from attempting to influence them at all. Or you may end up using less effective influence tactics—either giving up too soon or pushing too hard—in response to expecting strong pushback.

Luckily, recent research on people’s perceptions of how receptive different influence targets are likely to be to requests and appeals suggests that more people are likely to listen to you than you think—which means your sphere of influence may be even larger than you believe it to be. While you may assume your influence is limited largely to close others and those younger or more junior to you, it turns out that both strangers and people senior to you are also likely to find you persuasive—more so than you may realize.

Should You Ask a Friend or a Stranger for Help?

A common consideration when you need someone to do something for you is whether to ask someone you know well, or someone you don’t know well—or even at all. In many cases, you may feel more comfortable asking a friend than a stranger to, say, sponsor you in your charitable fundraising efforts, or help with a task you could use an extra hand on.

However, in recent research Sebastian Deri, Daniel Stein, and I conducted, we found that while people tend to think our friends will be much more likely to agree to do things for us than strangers, strangers are surprisingly willing to comply with our requests—almost as much as our friends are.

In a series of studies, we had a total of 310 participants approach almost one thousand people with a simple request for a favor (either to complete a survey or count the number of beans in a jar). In each of our three studies, half of our participants were randomly assigned to make this request of people they knew well; the other half were told to make this request of someone they didn’t know, i.e., a stranger.

In our largest, pre-registered study using this experimental paradigm, 204 participants approached 621 people with a request to complete a brief questionnaire. We told our participants they had to get either 3 friends or 3 strangers to agree to this request. Before making their requests, we asked our participants how many people they thought they would need to ask before 3 agreed. Participants who were instructed to approach friends thought they would need to ask an average of 3.9 people before 3 would agree. In other words, they thought compliance would be pretty high. However, participants who were instructed to approach strangers thought they would need to ask 9.4 people on average—that is, they thought it would be far more difficult to get strangers to comply.

Importantly, however, it turned out to be an easier task than either group had expected—and much easier than the group instructed to ask strangers had imagined. Participants actually only had to ask 3.8 strangers or 3.1 friends on average to get three people to comply. Not only did participants greatly underestimate their ability to get strangers to agree to their requests, but, surprisingly, strangers were almost as likely as friends to agree. While participants expected a large difference in compliance between friends and strangers of about 5.5 people, in fact, the difference in actual compliance between the two groups was quite small—less than 1.

Will Someone Older and Wiser Actually Take My Advice?

Another common assumption is that “older is wiser,” which can lead younger people to hold back from attempting to influence or advise older, or more senior, individuals—even when they are in fact more expert in a domain than the other person.

This tendency was demonstrated in a recent set of studies by Ting Zhang and Michael North. In their studies, participants who were given the opportunity to provide advice to another person overwhelmingly preferred to advise someone either 10 years younger or the same age as them, rather than someone 10 years older. The reason for this preference, the researchers found, was that participants thought their advice would be less useful and less well-received by someone older than them.

However, as above, this expectation turned out to be incorrect. When the researchers tested advisees’ perceptions of advice given to them by younger advisers, advisees thought that advice given by younger advisers was just as effective as advice given by advisers of the same age. In other words, younger advisers underestimated how effective older advisees—compared to younger or peer advisees—would view their advice.

Importantly, this was the case even when the younger advisor had more expertise in a domain than their older advisee, meaning that their advice could indeed be valuable to the other person if they were willing to provide it. In one study, MBA students who had received instruction in negotiation continued to erroneously believe that older advisees who had not received similar instruction would not find their negotiation advice useful.

Your Surprising Circle of Influence

Work by Sebastian Deri, Shai Davidai, and Tom Gilovich has shown that people tend to underestimate both the size of their social networks and how central they are in their social circle. The work reviewed above suggests a similar pattern of underestimating our social sphere of influence. Not only do we have bigger social networks than we think, and are more central to our social circles than we realize; we also have influence over more types of people than we realize. We have influence not only on our friends, but also on strangers—and not only on those our own age and younger, but also on older people. Altogether, this research suggests that when you have something to ask or say, more people are willing to listen to you than you might realize.

Facebook image: Mangostar/Shutterstock

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