On the day after Christmas, 2018, police in North Little Rock, Arkansas, talked a man out of jumping off a bridge. The police worked with the man for 30 minutes until the man backed down, was put into an ambulance, and taken to a hospital. There isn’t much publicly known about the man or what led him to that situation, but it’s a fair bet that his family is happy he did not end his life that day.
This hits close to home for me because, a few years ago, someone I know did jump off a bridge and killed herself. She was alone the day she jumped, and I know her family and friends wished they’d been there — that anyone had been there — to talk her down.
The phrase “how to get someone else to do what you want” might conjure up all sorts of images of people trying to act selfishly and manipulate people into getting things. And, yes, some people do operate that way. But that’s not what I’m about here. I’m about how to get someone else to do what you want when the situation matters, such as when genuine harm can come to you or others if what needs to happen doesn’t happen.
Before we continue, a couple of disclaimers.
One, this is about increasing your chances, not guarantees. In some situations, you can do everything right and still not get what you need. So I’m talking here about maximizing your chances, not a magical formula that will make another human being do whatever you want.
Two, this is primarily about dealing with adults. There are aspects of this that can be applied to children, but the dynamics in those situations can also be different, too, especially for younger kids.
Step 1: Gather Information
When a situation is urgent, there is a strong temptation to go rushing in without learning anything beforehand. Sometimes time really is of the essence, but when possible, even a few moments of information-gathering can spell the difference between success and defeat. (If time allows, sleeping on the situation can also be helpful.) That information gathering can include:
- What you can learn about your problem.
- What you can learn about the person you’re going to be talking to.
- What you can learn about possible solutions.
- If there are any other people or resources that can help you.
All of these things will be very helpful in the next two steps.
Step 2: Prepare Your Words and Your State of Mind
Have you ever:
- mentally rehearsed something you’re going to say, only to go in and say something totally different when the time came?
- said or written something that, upon later reflection, you realized was not the best thing you could have said?
If the answer is yes to either of these, congratulations — you’re human. The lesson here is that preparation, and a calm head, are vitally important. That may mean a slight delay in when you ask for something while you cool off (if necessary), and some time to gather what you’re going to say.
One really helpful little trick: if your conversation will take place verbally, write down what you want to say. In most cases, there is nothing wrong with having something handwritten in front of you.
Step 3: Figure Out the Best Time to Approach
Multiple studies have suggested that prison inmates whose parole hearings are heard in the morning or right after lunch are more likely to be granted than those that happen, say, late in they day. Timing matters.
I learned this personally when, years ago, I went to talk to a college professor about my grade. The college professor was irritable and ultimately did not listen to what I asked for. I realized, belatedly, that I didn’t do myself any favors by my timing. See, I’d visited him in the late afternoon, and he was a practicing Muslim in the middle of Ramadan. The man hadn’t eaten in hours. In hindsight, seeing him first thing in the morning would have been far wiser.
So figuring out the right time can be important: morning versus afternoon, Monday versus Friday, the day of a difficult meeting versus the next day. If possible, you want to talk with the person on a day when outside forces aren’t going to hurt you.
Step 4: Figure Out the Best Way to Communicate
There are a number of ways people can communicate:
- In person.
- By phone.
- Electronically: email, text, messaging, and so on.
- By written letter.
Part of step 1 was, hopefully, getting a handle on what ways work best for the person you’re talking to. Everyone is different and thinks differently of different forms of communication. For my money, if the subject in question is really important, the (usually) best approach is in person. Most people are nicer in person than they are, say, electronically (if you don’t believe me, check out social media), and the nonverbal communication that comes from being in person helps to reduce the risk of misunderstanding.
I would add two warnings, though. One, in-person conversations can lose their punch if used excessively, so I prefer to save them for the big things. Two, if the matter is small, an in-person conversation might make it seem bigger, in which case a short request via email might work just as well. It really depends.
Step 4: Be Polite
Courtesy, politeness, and human decency go a long way. I’ve been on the receiving end of requests laced with attacks, sarcasm, or other insults, and, even if the person was right, it didn’t do much to make me want to do what they asked … and it certainly made me less likely to want to work hard for them in the future.
By contrast, people who are kind and assume the best at the outset of a conversation create an environment that is less confrontational and more cordial. You want the person you’re talking with to feel like an equal partner, not a cornered animal who might act based on instinct rather than rational thought.
Step 5: When Possible, Ask Rather Than Tell
When you can, don’t tell some what to do … ask them if they can do something. You’d be amazed how differently people view a request over a mandate. Giving people an out can, paradoxically, makes them more likely to choose in your favor, simply because you’ve given them the courtesy of asking. This doesn’t always work, and in some situations you simply can’t. But when you can, it’s worth doing.
“What if they say no?” Well, it could happen, and that’s a risk, since you’re giving them a choice. There are a lot of next possible steps. I will say, though, that sometimes — sometimes — a person who says no will, if the request is reasonable, sometimes reconsider and change their mind later. I’ve done this myself.
Step 6: Have a Solution in Hand that Helps Make Their Life Easier
Whenever you ask a person to do something, you’re inviting stress upon the person because you’re asking them to expend effort. You can help with that effort if, situation permitting, you have part of the solution ready to talk about.
Let’s say, for example, that there is a major problem at work. If you approach your supervisor, explain the problem … and then also note that you’ve been thinking about a couple of concrete solutions to the problem, your boss may appreciate knowing that you’ve done some of the legwork to solve the problem rather than just coming and griping. It makes solving the problem easier because the boss doesn’t have to burn time trying to process both your problem and a solution. If you’re willing to help with the solution (assuming you’re not the problem!) then so much the better.
Now, if your boss doesn’t like this approach, hopefully you figured that out in Step 1, but even then holding onto it in the back of your mind for the right moment is still useful. If nothing else, it gives you a chance to evaluate whether the fix they suggest is better or worse than the one you considered.
Step 7: Say Thank You, Even if They Say No
This is not an easy step, but it’s important, especially if this is a colleague or supervisor. It helps build capital with the person that 1) may cause them to reconsider the decision later on and 2) gives you a better chance of getting what you want if you speak with them again about something else down the road.
Of course, you’re liable to want to verbally blast the person at this point, but it’s important to try not to when possible. That patience can pay off later.
Step 8: Get Help
So you’ve done everything right. You did your research, planned it out, met in person, were a saint, asked nicely, offered options … and the person said no. Now what?
That depends on how important it is, and only you can decide that. If it’s not all that important, you might consider letting it go. You have to pick your battles in life, and this might not be the hill you want to contend. This approach can help you later for big things, when you can even note that you’ve been very understanding in the past but now is important.
What if it is important? This might be a time to enlist help. In this case, help can come in many forms, including advisors (which you may or may not have sought in Step 1). But a more effective form of help can come from people who can also interact with the person you need to get to do something. Perhaps they can grease the wheels for you … in other words, help convince the other person.
Sometimes this help might be on the same level as your person, like a fellow manager, for example. Sometimes the person might even be the person’s supervisor, although I’m really careful about, say, enlisting my boss’s boss to make my boss do something. Even people below the person can be useful, like a subordinate who is nevertheless highly respected by the boss.
You might wonder if it’s worth you and this person going to the other person together. Maybe. Some people get confrontational when it’s a 2-on-1 situation, so, again, you want to know the other person well. Otherwise, having a second person follow up after you is one possible way, especially if you trust that person.
Thoughts? What has helped you the most in influencing others to do what needs to be done?