A Surprising Way To Influence People

Why irrational questions might be better than rational ones

Wang Yip
2 min readFeb 14, 2024
Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Your daughter doesn’t want to study. You know they have a big exam tomorrow and you plead with them to study. You try to persuade your daughter to study:

“Please study”

“You must study or you are going to fail tomorrow”

You will probably find that the requests do not work.

Michael Pantalon is a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine and a leading authority on “motivational interviewing.” The motivational interviewing technique does not try to change people by coercion, rewards or punishments, but by using questions to unlock their inner goals.

Pantalon’s approach to getting your daughter to study would be to ask irrational questions.

First, he would ask:

“On a scale of 1–10, with 1 being not ready at all and 10 being totally ready, how ready are you to study?”

After she answers, he would then ask:

“Why didn’t you pick a lower number?”

Why might this work better than asking rational questions?

It’s surprising

When people get a scale question, the natural follow-up question might be why the number isn’t higher. If you’re at a 4 or 5, one follow-up question might be “How do I get you to a 7 or 8?” or “Why isn’t it a 9?”

Most people who resist change (either doing or believing) are not necessarily binary in their position. It’s not either a yes or a no. There are shades in between. If your daughter doesn’t say ‘1’, it means she is leaning towards not studying, but studying is a maybe. The scale question might expose a ‘maybe’ from a ‘no’ response to a yes or no question.

It forces the other person to articulate their position

When you ask why your daughter didn’t pick a lower number, your daughter will come up with reasons for why she should be studying. She moves from providing excuses or reasons for why she doesn’t want to study to why she should be studying — which means she is coming up with reasons why she should be behaving differently.

All of this will help your daughter clarify her inner desires to study, which means there is a higher likelihood she will.

The next time you’re trying to persuade someone, try these two questions:

  • On a scale of 1–10, with 1 being X and 10 being Y, where would you say you fall? [Please fill in your own X and Y for your situation]
  • Why didn’t you pick a lower number?



Wang Yip

Author of Essential Habits. I write about personal development, work and managing your career. Connect with me at www.wangyip.ca