Using magic questions to motivate and influence others

By formulating questions based on the issues brought up by the other person, a questioner can control and direct the conversation

Editor's Note: For more than a decade and a half, Lt. Jim Glennon has taught a class called Arresting Communications, and the following article — the second in an occasional series — is excerpted from his forthcoming book of the same name.  Reserve your copy and 20 percent off the regular price by pre-ordering on PoliceOne Books.

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

I’ve found that most people will tell you — especially when they are under stress — what they value and who they want you to think they are during the earliest stages of an encounter, often in the first 30 to 60 seconds. They want to paint a picture of themselves — ethically, morally, emotionally, psychologically that you will buy into. They want you to view them as having a level of importance, worth, and significance (pleasure).

So they tell you stuff.

Admittedly, this stuff is often absurd, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the information they give you can be used to influence and direct their behavior. If you truly listen and learn what it is that the other person values, or pretends to value, you’ll be able to formulate questions designed to redirect the person’s focus and take control of the interaction.

Magic Questions: What are they?
Let’s use a simple example as a way to explain what they are, what they can do for you, and where you get them.

Say you’re a new recruit and you want to get to know your field training officer (FTO). What do you do to establish a positive connection with her, to set the tone of your relationship? You guessed it: Ask her questions.

Recruit: “So, what do you do in your spare time, Officer Schlep?”

Now listen, both to what she says and how she says it.

Schlep: “I like to study case law, read cop magazines, practice my marksmanship, chart and document alien abductions, but I especially like to golf.”

Bingo! In one sentence she has given you enough information about herself to keep you positively engaged for the next several hours, if not days and weeks. How? By following up with another question about something she said:

Recruit: “So you golf, huh?”

Schlep: “Yeah, six handicap — the best in the department. Usually go out two to three times a week in the summer. I bought this new driver with a huge titanium head and I can hit... blah, blah, blah.”

Whoa! What’s happening here? This isn’t real communication. I’m not influencing her. I’m not motivating her. She’s doing all the talking. She is learning nothing about me! I need to let her know who I am, what I have to contribute. I was third in my academy class and the second-best shot. She needs to know that my dad was a cop, that I played football in college, that I run like the wind, and have a lovely singing voice. And by the way, where are these Magic Questions you keep talking about?

Relax, I know she is doing all the talking, but that’s what’s so great about it. You don’t have to talk in order to communicate. In fact, talking is probably the greatest obstacle to communicating effectively. Questions are the answer. You’ll tell her more about who you are through your questions than with any long-winded, autobiographical proclamations that cite the sparse and inconsequential achievements in your humdrum life.

Keep it simple: Ask her a question about what she is talking about and make it clear that you are listening (next chapter). Let her get excited about golf (pleasure for her), then (and here’s a real important part) follow up with more questions about what she just said. Continue to actively listen. Notice that she is talking about a subject that energizes her. And you are giving her the opportunity to do it.

There are several benefits to this process, among them:

• You may learn more about golf
• You will definitely learn more about her, because she will reveal things about herself beyond the fact that she likes whacking a little ball with a $400 stick
• Since positive communication is occurring, she will subconsciously associate you with pleasure
• You are conveying to her that she is important
• You will learn that patience is an integral aspect of effective communication
• You will learn how to listen

And you have learned what magic questions are and where you find them.


See, there’s that goofy “Huh?” question again, but you know what? It speaks volumes. It implies confusion, bewilderment, curiosity, and perhaps a touch of frustration. It certainly begs for an explanation about the questions that I claim have magical properties. So here we go.

Magic Questions are questions based on something the other person said. Why does that make them magic? Here are a few reasons:

• Asking a question based on something the other person said demonstrates that you’ve listened, and if you took the time (one of the most valuable of human commodities) to listen, that communicates to the other person that he/she and his/her ideas, thoughts, concerns, etc., matter — have worth, value, and a level of importance.
• Since the questions are based on what the other person said, subsequent communication that includes empathy, listening, the showing of respect and appreciation, etc., will help build rapport and trust
• By using the issues brought up by the other person, the questioner can control and direct the conversation

Building Rapport, Developing Relationships, Establishing Trust
As the conversation evolves between you and your FTO, a relationship is developing between the two of you. You are defining yourself to her and she is defining herself to you. And the best part is that you can create the type of relationship you want, just by asking questions. It really just takes a conscious decision on your part to do it.

If you want to create a positive relationship, use the appropriate kind of questions, like the ones in our little dialogue. Conversely, if you’re looking to return to lounging on your parents’ couch and dining on their dime, there’s a theory that covers that, too: You can ask your FTO no questions, or ask stupid ones.

If she tells you what a great golfer she is, you can either refuse to ask any follow-up questions (which implies that you didn’t listen and/or that you don’t care) or you can ask her one that will define you to her for years to come: “You golf? Why the hell would anyone waste their time and money doing that? Hitting a little ball around an open field for hours and hours? Don’t you find that an incredible waste of time and money?”

Now you may think that’s just silly — that no one would ever really do something like that — but to some degree we all commit that kind of communication error at some time or another. Think about a regular conversation you have with your significant other. Do you always show an interest in what that person is saying? Do you become engaged in the interaction? Or do you dismiss the other person by asking questions designed to get to the point or conclude the conversation quickly?

• “Why do you care about this?”
• “This impacts me how?”
• “So what is your point?”
• “What are you so upset about?”
• “Why are you bothering me with this?”
• “Why do we always have to talk about your mother and sisters? “Can’t I get a break?”
• “Why don’t you just tell them all to go to hell?
• “Have you seen the remote?”

Remind you of anyone?

Remember that most people evaluate others based on how that other person makes them feel, and since we are emotional beings, that evaluation isn’t usually conducted through a logical process. Those feelings are a result of the communication process. If another person associates you with pleasurable feelings — because you’ve confirmed that he or she is important — then it would be difficult for that person to view you in a poor light.

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