Questions That Get Honest Answers

2018 Fall Marketing Tip

Purnima Chawla

October 4, 2018

Clients often complain to me about false consensus—this happens when people seem to be in agreement with a decision or action but then don’t do what you’ve asked them to do. For example, you might leave a meeting with a landowner quite convinced that they’re going to take the actions you’ve recommended, but it just never happens.

Sometimes, of course, it’s because people forget or lose the sense of urgency when they get back to their regular lives. That is when nudges are useful to cue the promised action.

But sometimes there is a deeper issue of false consensus, in which the landowner seemed to be agreeing with you but is not really committed to following through. They may not have processed the information you provided closely enough to identify any concerns or they simply may not care enough to voice their concerns. So, you thought you had agreement (great!) when what you really had was indifference (bad!) or even outright opposition (really bad).

So, how do you get around indifference or opposition, or at least identify it? You do it by asking the right questions and listening closely to the answers.

In a recent article published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the authors describe an experiment in which participants were asked to sell a device that had a serious malfunction to unsuspecting buyers. The buyers were collaborators in the experiment and were trained to ask certain questions. The results show that the questions asked by the buyers determined the likelihood that the seller would report the malfunction. See the table below:

Question asked by the "buyer" Percentage of "sellers" who reported the malnfunction
What can you tell me about it  (i.e. the product)? 8%
It doesn’t have any problems, does it? 61%
What problems does it have? 81%


I hope these results have convinced you of the importance of asking questions that invite your audience to voice problems and disagreement. So, next time you’re trying to convince your partners or landowners to take a particular action, make sure you specifically ask, “What problems do you see with taking this action?” Don’t just leave it with, “What do you think of this?” or even, “Let me know if you have any problems with this.”

Asking the right questions is especially important when you’re testing messages with your audience members. To help you ask good questions that yield honest answers, we’ve just posted a brand new message testing guide in the resources section of our website. Try it out and tell us…what problems do you see with it?