What’s the best way to convince someone to make a change? Most people mistakenly begin by listing the reasons. But, according to Michael Pantalon, senior research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine, executive coach and author of Instant Influence, it’s more effective to ask a prospect why they are considering making a change in the first place.

Say you’re meeting with a plan sponsor client to discuss a change like conducting an investment re-enrollment, simplifying a retirement plan lineup or evaluating a target date fund. Applying Pantalon’s Instant Influence technique, you should ask the following questions:

1. “Why might you want to make a change?”

2. “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning ‘not the least bit ready’ and 10 meaning ‘totally ready,’ how ready are you to make that change?”

3. “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?”

“The last question catches everyone off guard,” says Pantalon. If your client has even a faint desire to do something, Pantalon says, they will begin explaining their reasons. They move from defending their current behavior to articulating why, at some level, they want to behave differently. And that, he says, allows them to clarify their compelling personal reasons for making a change, which increases the chances that they actually will.

Listen carefully to the reasons your client gives you. If he says, “Because I think an investment re-enrollment will help get more employees into the retirement plan,” dig deeper, and say “Why is that important to you?” He may say, “Because I know that having more employees that are ready to retire when they turn 65 will save me money in the long run.” Or, he may say, “Because I need to protect my company from liability.”

Keep digging until you have uncovered at least one positive, genuine reason for making the change. As Pantalon says, “It doesn’t have to be emotional, but just something that really connects.” The more compelling the reason is to the client, the better they will remember the conversation and the more likely they are to follow through with next steps. 

Get to the “why” before the “how”

So, what is "instant Influence?" Pantalon describes it as, “a simple, motivational strategy that anyone can use that, at the heart of it, addresses why someone wants to change much more so than what, how and when. We spend too much time on the what, how and when but too little on the why.”

Instant Influence is based on three principles. According to Pantalon:     

1. No one absolutely has to do anything; the choice is always theirs.

2. Everyone already has enough motivation.

3. Focusing on any tiny bit of motivation works much better than asking about resistance.

Rather than dwelling on misconceptions or all the reasons not to do something, ask your client what they might like to do next. Pantalon elaborates, “You keep it tentative and hypothetical so as to allow the person to brainstorm and not be bogged down by their reasons why it can’t happen. You can say something like, ‘I understand you have some reasons for not making a change. That’s one side of the equation. What’s on the other side? If you were wanting to make a change, what would be the reasons in favor of it?’” 

table of questions

Discussing next steps

Only after a compelling, personal, emotional reason has been identified is it appropriate to discuss developing an action plan. Ask permission to broach the topic of next steps. “Remember not to be prescriptive,” Pantalon says. “Instead, start with, ‘What do you think the next step might be?’”

In his experience coaching business professionals, Pantalon has often had to hold back advisors from telling people the reasons why they should do something. “Remember to be patient,” he says. “Sometimes these conversations work in kind of a mysterious way. It looks like nothing has happened. But even if they haven’t committed at the end of the meeting, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t influenced them. It’s starting to percolate, so leave well enough alone and agree to just follow up.”

Now, given all that you’ve heard, on a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to try Pantalon’s Instant Influence technique? And why isn’t your number lower?