Content and Editorial Director
I was a constant thumb-sucker as a kid. My mom tried everything to get me to stop, including covering my digit in a bitter glaze that I would, miserably, suck off. Finally, exasperated, she asked me, “What would it take to keep you from sucking your thumb?” Without hesitation I replied. “A rock polisher.” I got one, and my thumb came out of my mouth forever. I’d made a promise, after all. What no one realized at the time was that my mother had asked a powerful, almost magical question that, according to Yale professor Dr. Zoe Chance, can help all of us achieve what we want. Four simple words: “What would it take?”
Chance, a Harvard-trained behavioral scientist, teaches a wildly popular class at Yale called Mastering Influence and Persuasion. In class, Chance shares strategies on increasing personal influence, including this “magic question.” The question is magic, she says, because it's respectful. It’s also magic because you get creative and surprising answers. When people brainstorm roadmaps to success with you, Chance says, they’re implicitly committing to supporting that outcome, and that’s a powerful thing. When generating solutions is a process opened up to everyone, stress levels drop, mutual respect rises, and you get some very innovative ideas.
Chance shares an example that illustrates the power of this simple question. In Zambia, sex trafficking is a big problem. To try to figure out how to solve it, Gloria Steinem went to a village where three young women had been lost to sex traffickers the previous year. Instead of trying to give them advice, Steinem asked the magic question: “What would it take for that to never happen again?” The villagers told her they needed an electric fence — a solution Steinem never would have come up with on her own. The fence was the solution because when their corn crop reached a certain height, elephants would trample it and eat it, which left the village with no food. With nothing to sell at the market, there was no money, and families became so desperate they sent their daughters to join the sex trade. Gloria Steinem raised several thousand dollars for the electric fence, and when she came back a few years later, no women had been lost to sex trafficking. Pretty amazing.
Zoe Chance’s new book — Influence Is Your Superpower: The Science of Winning Hearts, Sparking Change, and Making Good Things Happen — is now available everywhere books are sold.
This question has also helped businesses make record profits, which Chance shares an interesting example of. A medical device company had developed a revolutionary stent system to treat patients with coronary artery disease, and there were so many orders, they couldn’t possibly meet demand. Considering this was a lifesaving device, that posed a real problem. “The company had lots and lots of orders, and if they had any hope of ramping up production to meet demand, it would require employees work three shifts a day, from Thanksgiving through Christmas,” Chance said. ”And obviously, people weren’t excited about doing that.”
In order to increase production, the company felt it had two choices. Either tell its factory workers they would get fired if they didn’t work massive overtime during the holidays, or offer incentives, like extra pay. But these sticks and carrots tactics don’t work, Chance says. “Either way, you undermine morale. Even if you give someone a high enough incentive, they will respond to it in the short run, but in the long run, it doesn’t build loyalty, and can lead to disengagement.”
But a member of the company’s management team had another idea. She decided to ask workers the magic question: “What would it take for you to be willing to come in and work overtime during this period, and be happy about it?” The answers she received were surprising. The workers told her that the bus didn’t run at night, which was a big problem, so they needed cab fare. Also, they shared that they were hungry, and wanted pizza. Perhaps most unexpectedly, they told her they were stressed about getting their Christmas presents wrapped, so they wanted the company to hire a gift wrapper. Management did all these things, in addition to paying them for the overtime, and the company hit record production numbers, even over the holidays.
The example illustrates what an essential tool the question can be in potentially fraught situations. “This is a question that’s also really helpful when you have conflicts with somebody, or when you’re tempted to criticize someone,” Chance says. “Just ask, instead, what would it take to fix this? Because you let them save face. It shifts the thinking from judgment, pressure, motivation, decision-making, to just creative, logistical problem-solving.”
Ready to take this question out for a test run? There are lots of ways you can incorporate the magic question into your life. You can pose it to co-workers to determine how to best tackle a project. With your kids, to get them to do their chores. And, perhaps most surprisingly, you can use the magic question with yourself to boost your overall wellness and happiness. Chance recommends asking the question to yourself right now: “What would it take for me to feel even better, more energized, happy, healthy, more alive in my life?” You’ll be astonished with the number of innovative ideas you generate. Which really does feel like magic.
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