Use Questions, Suggestions and Options to Persuade

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The important thing is not to stop questioning.
— Albert Einstein


Some of the best persuaders – sales people, negotiators and psychiatrists – persuade with questions rather than statements. Questions raise awareness and direct the attention of the audience. If we ask you to rate the tension in our shoulders on a scale of 1-10 with 1 as low and 10 as the highest, it is impossible for you to avoid becoming aware of the tension in your shoulders. The power of questions to generate action and commitment is displayed well in John Whitmore’s book Coaching for Performance. We suggest that you should collect good questions.

One question to avoid is Why? It produces a defensive response because it is a blame question. Few people will answer this question truthfully and often it will damage the rapport of a presentation or a conversation. Other ways to ask the same question are, “What were your reasons for that?” or “How did you decide to do that?”

Neil Rackham, a psychologist, found that skilled negotiators used questions twice as often as average negotiators. Rackham went on to research successful sales people and developed a sales method based on studying 35,000 sales calls.

The essence of the method is four different kinds of questions:

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  1. Situation

  2. Problem

  3. Implication

  4. Need-benefit

Questions are useful for other forms of persuasion as well as sales. What questions can you use to persuade?


What is the difference between presenting information as a statement, and making a suggestion? Peter Honey a psychologist and expert on behaviour, suggests a listener has four possible reactions to a statement:

  1. to support the statement

  2. to build on the idea

  3. to seek more information

  4. to state a difficulty

His research on behaviour indicates using suggestions will increase the chances of a proposal being accepted and reduce the chances of the listener finding a difficulty with it.

Clearly, listeners will not accept a proposal that does not meet their needs. However, if the language we use influences human behaviour then when persuading for results, you can use the tool of language to increase the chances of action. Peter Honey found using suggestions doubles the chance the listener will support your proposal and reduces by four the chance of a difficulty. Using suggestions will not stop a listener rejecting a bad proposal, but it will increase the chances of a listener accepting a good proposal.

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Negotiation expert Roger Fisher recognises the power of questions and suggestions to influence others and makes three suggestions:

  1. Ask others to contribute their opinions

  2. Offer your thoughts, but present them as suggestions, or one way of acting, not ‘the’ way

  3. Do something constructive

Fisher’s second point leads us to our final suggestion to present options then a recommendation, rather than simply a recommendation.



Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman discuss the psychology of selling in their book Conceptual Selling. They indicate that people follow a consistent process to make decisions:

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If this is how people think, then using this process makes it easier for them. Missing out the second step may seem to save time, but you run the risk of the audience generating options and selecting a different solution to the one you recommend. Far better to follow the process, present options and then guide the audience to the reasons for the solution that you recommend.