Just Ask: How to Be More Persuasive in Work and Life

According to an August 3, 2015 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “You’re Already More Persuasive Than You Think,” Vanessa K. Bohns explains why people consistently underestimate their influence, and offers some practical suggestions on how to make better requests and be more persuasive in work and life.

Have you ever shied away from making a suggestion to a manager, or didn’t share a good idea with a coworker out of fear of rejection? In reality, our bosses and colleagues are much more likely to be more receptive to our ideas and requests than we think. In many cases, simply suggesting or asking is enough to get it done — yet people persistently underestimate their influence.

Study: People more likely to say “yes”

Consider a set of experiments Vanessa Bohns, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the ILR School at Cornell University, conducted with Frank Flynn of Stanford University.

For the study, they asked each research participant to estimate how many people he or she would need to approach before someone agreed to fill out a questionnaire, make a donation to a charity, or let the participant borrow a cell phone. Then, the participants went out and made those requests to strangers.

The results were surprising: The people asked were twice as likely to say “yes” as the participants had expected, and many participants expressed surprise at how willing people were to go along with their requests.

Expectations versus reality

Bohns says the disconnect between expectations and reality is a particular problem in the workplace. “Because most companies emphasize the rigidity and formality of their hierarchies, employees tend to assume that their influence is dependent upon their roles or titles — that if they lack official clout, they can’t ask for anything,” she says.

Further explained, employees tend to forget that managers are people too, and bosses generally care about whether employees respect them, and feel guilty and embarrassed if they let their direct reports down.

When employees forget this human dynamic, they forget that the social pressure to comply with a request is very, very strong, and it’s usually harder for people, even bosses, to say “no” than “yes.” The result is untapped potential to influence others, to effect change, to blow the whistle on wrongdoing.

And what happens when people do embrace the influence they forgot they had? They ask for things more readily; they don’t worry as much that their requests will be denied; they become more confident, influential, and in a sense, more powerful.

With influence, comes responsibility

With the realization that she and others are more influential than they thought, Bohns recognized the responsibility that comes with that power. “Our words have surprising impact,” she says. “Not only do we need to be careful about a throwaway comment’s possible unintended consequences, but we also have an implied role when we see wrongdoing or room for improvement. Like it or not, we all have a powerful tool for making change: simple direct language,” says Bohns.

How to be more persuasive

How can you become more persuasive and influential in both work and life? Here are some suggestions based on the results of the research done by Bohns and her colleagues.

Speak up and ask for what you want. Keeping in mind the results of their research, embolden yourself to speak up more and ask for what you want.

Be direct. Bohns and the other researchers also found that people respond better to direct requests, rather than vague, beating around the bush suggestions. Formulate your thoughts and words ahead of time, then get to the point.

“No” means ask again. Another mistake people make is the assumption that a “no” answer in the past means a “no” in the future. But research by Bohns’ and her colleagues showed that saying “no” can sometimes make people more likely to say “yes” to a subsequent request, because they feel badly about the first “no.” So ask again!

Save the playoff tickets. Bohns’ research also shows that people are just as likely to agree to a request, even if it is not attached to an incentive for them. It’s a human trait for people to feel good about helping out another person, so don’t feel you have to offer money or playoff tickets to get what you want. If they agree, make them feel appreciated — that should be enough.


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