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Stop using these words that lead to a “no”

A conversation analyst shares why asking someone if they would “like” something is unlikely to generate a yes.

Stop using these words that lead to a “no”
[Photo: Alexey_M/iStock]

“Would you like to make an appointment?” “Are you interested in attending on Thursday?” “Would you be willing to discuss this?”

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These are questions businesses often ask of their customers–whether over email, online, or face-to-face. And they all have one thing in common: They’re all yes/no questions that elicit some commitment from the other person. These questions include verbs that characterize the respondent as someone who would “like,” is “interested,” is “willing” to do something (or not). Some of these verbs lead to the answer “no” more than others.

As a professor of social interaction, I study talk “in the wild,” from settings like first dates and hostage negotiation. You see, conversations are about what people are doing with words–whether written or spoken (or produced via gestures, sign language, and so on). It’s about the actions people initiate, progress, and complete–like questions, requests, offers, flirts, complaints, assessments, and greetings. When we examine them, the highly systematic nature of action begins to reveal itself. We start at the beginning of an encounter with another person and along the conversational racetrack, complete actions. Conversations can progress smoothly without friction, or become tense and challenging depending on the words you use.

Getting to yes

In the late 1990s, I began working with community mediation services. My initial interest was in neighbor relationships and what happens when they go wrong. Mediation services provided recordings of their initial telephone calls with potential clients. For mediators, these calls are not part of the mediation process. They are encounters where clients arrange appointments. I spotted a serious problem almost immediately: Callers resisted mediation as a route to resolving their disputes. They didn’t want to resolve the conflict; they wanted to see punishments—for the police to make an arrest, or for a lawyer to initiate court proceedings.

When people call mediation services, they have to decide whether or not they want to meet with the mediator at the end of the call. If the mediators get no more than yes, then the service will cease to exist. The initial inquiry is the most critical step in the journey. By analyzing the moment in calls where mediators tried to convert callers into clients, I learned how one word could make the difference between a yes and a no.

Once the other business of the call is over, a mediator may ask, “Does mediation sound like it might be helpful to you?” Or is mediation “something you would be interested in?” or “like to try?” In response to these questions, I found people are likely to say no (or some version of it, in more polite terms).

But when mediators ask if callers were willing to mediate or propose that they are (“You’d be willing . . . “), they were more likely to say yes. Not only that, they responded with enthusiasm. And only “willing” secured a complete turnaround from resistance to yes. Why? Because, unlike their neighbor, the caller is the kind who would be willing to see the mediators. They’re the good and reasonable party. By asking callers if they are “willing” to mediate, mediators can open up a slot for the caller to say, “I’m the good one.” It’s what people in disputes want to say.

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The power of “willing”

Of course, “willing” isn’t a panacea. “Willing” works best to bring people to yes in situations where they care about the type of person they are, and where they’ve resisted doing the thing you’re trying to get them to do. People are “willing” to say yes to things that make them feel good, reasonable, or altruistic, irrespective of whether they’re talking to someone face to face, or communicating something in writing.

Last year, I spoke at a medical conference and showed the audience my findings on the power of “willing.” On the second day, a medic approached me to tell me that, overnight, he’d had an exchange of emails with a manager at his hospital. The medic wanted to trial a new process locally before it rolled out across the region–using a proven research methodology called “Quality Improvement.” But the manager wanted to deliver the change immediately and to the whole organization. The medic, who heard my talk, asked his manager, “Would you be willing to speak to one of the QI team about the potential benefits of the latter?” The response was an immediate yes and the standoff was over. Six months later, the medic wrote to let me know that the QI methodology was adopted.

One of my colleagues at my university, who also knew about this research, decided to ask on Facebook if someone might be able to proofread a new manuscript. No response. He went back and edited his post, and asked if anyone was “willing” to help. Three offers pinged onto his screen immediately.

You see, the simple shift to this word changes the emphasis from what the other person would like to do to the kind of person they are. And my research found that the latter works best every time. So if you find yourself struggling to turn a no into a yes, try asking that person if they are “willing” to do something, rather than if it would interest them. You might just get a different response.


Elizabeth Stokoe is a consultant at Typeform and professor of social interaction at Loughborough University. She is the author of Talk: The Science of Conversation, published by Little, Brown (2018).

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