The Magic Word That Makes You Seem Extra Persuasive

By
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

It’s easier than you might think to get what you want out of someone you don’t know very well, or even at all — as Science of Us has previously written, research has shown people tend to underestimate strangers’ willingness to help them out, even when the request is inconvenient or weird. This is especially true if you ask them a second time, which makes it that much more awkward to refuse.

Even so, it never hurts to stack the deck in your favor. And some research suggests that when you’re thinking about how to phrase your ask, there may be a magic word that makes it seem that much more doable: willing. As in, “Are you willing to do XYZ?”

Psychologist Elizabeth Stokoe, a professor of social interaction at Loughborough University in the U.K., specializes in conversational analysis, recording and transcribing everyday verbal exchanges to try and understand their linguistic and social components. In a recent presentation at Latitude, a festival-slash-conference in Suffolk, England — think a British SXSW — she explained a common pattern that she’s noticed throughout her research: When a request framed in more direct terms is turned down, a follow-up with a willing will often get the other person to cave:

Are you the type of person to mediate? Yes or no. What was really interesting about the mediation “willings” is that if you ask someone “Are you interested in mediation?” they might say yes or no. But if you ask them if they’re willing to mediate, that requires them saying something about the type of person that they are.

That particular phrasing, in other words, tweaks the nature of the ask — a question that was formerly about an immediate action is now about a person’s boundaries, what they can find doable or palatable in a broader sense. “So, if we change words, we change outcomes,” she said (the full transcript of her talk is online at BPS Research Digest).

With a caveat: “‘Willing’ works best after resistance, so it shouldn’t be your opening gambit,” she said. If the first approach fails, though, the trick can be a persuasive backup strategy. Now go forth and bend the world to your will.