Mind control: Asking the magic questions

Asking the right questions can influence a person’s instinctive thought processes and their subsequent behavior

Editor's Note: The following article — the first in an occasional series — is excerpted from Lt. Jim Glennon’s forthcoming book, published by PoliceOne Books. For more than a decade and a half, Glennon has for taught a class called Arresting Communications, and much of his book is culled from that instruction. If you’d like to receive notification when the book becomes available, simply shoot us an e-mail.

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

Active listening is one of the most important communication skills a cop can have — in fact, it’s a skill I’ll write about in a future column. A big part of what makes listening active is the ability to ask the right questions, at the right times — these are the magic questions. I could spend days, weeks, months, years writing about the power of questions, but that would be both boring and really, really difficult. Everyone knows how to ask a question, but developing the ability to ask the magic questions is another matter altogether.

Most people see questions simply as a way to obtain information, but they’re so much more than catalysts for answers. Properly asked questions can enable the person posing them to control the entire interaction.

If you can learn to ask the right questions at the right times, you’ll be able to:

• Make a great first impression
• Direct an interaction
• Control conversational cadence
• Stay on point
• Interrupt negative momentum
• Influence another’s behavior
• Influence your own behavior
• Direct another’s focus
• Direct your own focus
• Motivate others
• Motivate yourself
• Develop relationships
• Establish rapport
• Set clear goals
• Make clear decisions

Pretty appealing list of abilities, huh? Here are a few tips to keep in mind that will start you toward having this magical skill set.

What’s My Motivation?
Whether you want to motivate yourself or motivate others, start by asking a question. As I understand it, when a question is asked, the brain will instinctively begin to scan stored data to determine an appropriate response. Said a little differently, asking the right questions can influence a person’s instinctive thought processes and their subsequent behavior. Huh? How does that work?

Well, “Huh?” isn’t exactly a shining example of a great question, but it illustrates the point: A question almost always compels a response — a question almost always provokes some type of thought process. So if you want to motivate yourself — or another person — to take action, just ask a question designed to inspire or compel movement.

Pain & Pleasure
Movement in the brain, according to academics, researchers, self-help gurus, psychology types, and reportedly even Aristotle, is based on the linkage of pain or pleasure to particular stimuli. In order to evaluate anything, our brain unconsciously asks itself questions that map against our likes and dislikes, and the responses to those questions determine our mood, our beliefs, our attitude, and thus, our behavior.

Let’s set aside for the moment the task of motivating and influencing others, and think just about motivating and influencing ourselves. If you ask yourself positive, motivating, and empowering questions you will almost certainly receive positive, motivating, and empowering responses. Ask depressing, negative, dead-end questions and the responses will likewise be negative. Remember the pain-and-pleasure principle and learn to ask questions designed to compel the desired response.

Physical Illustration of Cognitive Process
Let’s take a look at establishing more positive habits, for instance. If the gray matter in your skull begins to evaluate a change in your behavior patterns as causing a certain level of pain or discomfort, would it be motivated to act? Probably not, because humans do their very best to avoid anything and everything associated with pain. Therefore, if your brain focuses on the painful aspects of a behavior and action, its recommendation to the body is going to be: Don’t do that thing.

On the other hand, if you can direct your focus past the painful aspects of establishing a particular habit and concentrate on the eventual benefits, you will be more likely to take action and make that change. And that’s where questions come in: Asking them helps you evaluate where you are now, where you want to be, and how you can get there.

Jogging is a good example that illustrates this point. I hate it. I associate jogging with absolute and unquestionable pain, and lots of it. But I still do it, for about 30 minutes a day, five or six days a week. I do it inside on treadmills or ellipticals, outside on paths and along sidewalks. It’s boring, it hurts my legs, it reminds me that I’m aging, it makes me breathe heavily, and I know I look stupid to those who really enjoy running as they pass me by in their designer gear. Come to think of it, I hate them, too.

So why do I do it if I find jogging painful and, according to the theory, humans have an innate need to avoid pain? Simple: I do it because I believe that if I don’t, greater pain will be the ultimate result — that if I miss just a couple of days, the result will be an immediate, and very negative, change in my currently pristine coronary arteries. And this will result in a hugely painful episode: dropping dead. Why do I believe these things? Because of the internal questions I ask myself.

Both an uncle and a grandfather of mine died of a heart attack in their 40s, and the thought of that reality is much, much more painful than what I experience while jogging. In fact, despite my avowed hatred for the activity, on another level, I actually love to run. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Well, for me it does, and here’s why: I have learned to develop an empowering perspective about this subject by asking myself questions designed to motivate me.

The empowering perspective involves ignoring any thought of the physical pain associated with my runs. I don’t allow myself to think about the running itself — which I do hate — or the pain in my legs and the heavy breathing. Instead, I redirect my focus by asking myself the right questions:

• How will I feel at the end of my run?
• How will I feel for the rest of my day?
• How will the run affect my heart and arteries?
• How will not running affect my health?
• How much longer will I live if I do run?
• How much better shape will I be in as I age if running is a daily habit?

You get the picture. Give it a shot.

Motivating yourself with the application of the right questions, at the right times, is your first step toward understanding the dynamics of asking the magic questions. Next time, we’ll examine what a magic question is, and and talk about applying these principles to our professional goal: motivating and influencing others.

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