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How to influence learners & spouses…

…and get them to do what you want.

One of my biggest struggles right now is how to get my spouse to clean up his “stuff” in the living room. I’ve tried to set boundaries, command, cajole, bribe — all to no avail. What I really want to do is go in there and throw all that “stuff” in the recycling bin. But then again, I value my relationship… and that might not go over so well.

How do I influence him and get him to do what I want?

This question is not so different from what I hear from some trainers and educators. How do I influence my learners? … and get them to want to be there, want to learn, do what’s good for them, do what I want? Ok, maybe the way that last phrasing is a bit manipulative, but essentially it’s the same question. How do I shift and influence behavior?

Small acts of commitment

Get people to make small acts of commitment, and that will lead to larger acts of commitment, according to Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. So what does that mean exactly?

An experiment: a volunteer asked  homeowners to put a 3″ sign in their window stating “Be a Safe Driver”.  Most complied. A couple weeks later, another person came to their door asking them if they could put a house-obscuring billboard on their front lawns with the words “DRIVE SAFELY”. A full 76% of the people who had agreed to the small sign, then agreed to the large billboard. A control group, people who had never been asked to put the small sign in their window, refused 83% of the time. What happened?

Small acts of commitment can lead to larger acts of commitment. Small acts of commitment can alter self-image (“I am a publicly minded person who cares about safe driving.”) When self-image is altered, we adjust our actions in the world to be in-line with our self-image.


Small acts of commitment for learners

Some of these small acts may already be familiar:

  • learning contracts
  • writing down goals for learning session (or merely even copying down goals…)
  • raising hands in answer to a question affirming the reason one is at the session
  • testimonials after the session
  • videotaping people at the beginning of the session re: goals
  • agree to have them act a certain way for a short period of time (examples: blog, but only for a month; eat healthier, but only for a week; hand over your Blackberry, but only for an hour)
  • let them know that there will be a report out on what everyone is doing differently (learned/changed behavior) 2-3 weeks after session is over
  • have them construct an ideal learning persona for the group
  • Give out small prizes for the “best” answer. If prizes are too big, individuals won’t be doing to get the best answer, they’ll be doing it for the prize. It’s about the person owning their actions.

These small acts seem trivial, but it was  by small acts that American PoWs were broken down by their Chinese captors in the Korean war and willingly collaborated. This had never happened to a large extent before. What did the Chinese do? They had they write essays or statements on what was bad about America, even if the PoWs  just copied them out. And they offered small prizes for the best essays.

Choose small acts that help create the self-image you want people to have.

Back to the “stuff” in the living room

So what small acts of  can I come up for my stubborn spouse?

  • create a list of what needs to be done to make a clean living room
  • work together on cleaning up the stuff, but just for an hour
  • take a picture of living room to put on Facebook to show to our friends
  • have a big party so BIG that the living room *must* be cleaned up

I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have any suggestions for learners or for my spouse, let me know. Hopefully he won’t read this post and launch a counter-strategy.

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6 Responses

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  1. Dwayne Hodgson says


    Loving your sense of humour here; although full disclosure: I’m also a messy husband. You’ll need to talk to my wife to see how to deal with this problem.

    Your suggestion of inviting learners to make small commitments and then try out small things makes sense in that they need to walk before they run. The learning design needs to be Sequenced from simple to complex, from group supported to individual, etc. and to maintain a good balance between Safety and Challenge. But I’m not sure that it is a matter of brainwashing (as per the POW example), as they ultimately must decide what is useful to them in the workshop and what is not (back to the principle of adult learners as Subjects of their own learning). Rather I see it as a process of bridging their expectations with yours, building on their motivations and inviting them to try out something new.

    A good place to start is in understanding why they are at your learning event in the first place. Where possible, I check in with them before the event through some sort of Learning Needs and Resources Assessment (LNRA (http://www.learningcycle/blog/2010/2/10/12-reasons-why-eleanor-ray-is-a-facilitators-best-friend.html) — e.g. via a phone call, email exchange or short online survey) to ask them about:

    a. their experience with the topic (+/-),
    b. why they are coming (i.e. this can range from “I’ve been waiting for this workshop all my life” or “my parole officer sent me….”),
    c. what challenges they are facing re: this topic in in their work
    d. their feedback on the proposed program for the workshop.
    e. what else I can do to make this a good learning experience for them.

    I find that the information that I get from this sort of LNRA really helps me understands their different motivations for attending, a sense of their prior experience / interest they are bringing and the Generative Themes that are common across the group. This insight helps me create a design that meets their needs, while also fulfilling my goals for the event and those of the client.

    At the beginning of the workshop, I also invite them to review the agenda and Achievement-Based Objectives that I’ve put together for them and then name _their_ personal learning expectations for this program. This lets me double check what I heard in the LNRA, pick up any people I didn’t connect with before, and capture any new expectations that have arisen since the LNRA. It also helps them to hear from each other to check their own goals and motivations. Often this information just confirms that what I’ve designed is on target, but other times it names some expectations that I hadn’t anticipated. If so, I then do what I can to meet these needs (e.g. through supplemental materials) and to adjust the program to their needs as we go . We always review these at the end to see how well we met them. And we also do regular learning synthesis and check-in tasks throughout the session to make sure that we’re on track.

    But even with all of this checking in, there are always a people who demonstrate Resistance. How I react depends on what kind of resistance it is. If it is resistance to the learning process (e.g. learning styles, pace, group work that exhausts the introverts, language, etc.), I adjust the program. If it is resistance to the topic, I celebrate it because it means they are engaged (as long as that resistance is respectful). The challenge then is to meet that resistance and take it as an opportunity to engage in a deeper dialogue.

    Great blog! Looking forward to hearing more.

  2. Rani H. Gill says

    Thanks for your comments and link to LNRA (Eleanor Ray…ok I get it!!). I agree with many of your comments and find them enlightening. (FYI – the link was missing something – full link is:

    When talking about small commitments I was thinking about something slightly different. It’s about how you influence people to take on a new *self-image*, which then leads to larger commitments. How do I get my husband to take on the self-image of an organized (and therefore neat) person – and clean up that set of unopened boxes and stuff? Psychologically, perhaps it is the same thing.

    I find the PoW example fascinating. The Chinese started small, and built up gradually, using small acts of commitment to break down the resistance of the American soldiers. It was one of the most effective campaigns during WWII to win the hearts and minds of American PoWs, that lasted *after* the war. It’s brainwashing when we are not honest about our intentions. When we are transparent — is it the same thing? I think not.

    I’m still mulling over this idea of influence …and integrity.

    Great comments! thanks for the conversation.

  3. Dwayne Hodgson says

    Okay, thanks. I’m catching your drift now.

    But probably easier with POWs than husbands! Good luck. 🙂

  4. Janet Isserlis says

    thanks for this, Rani

    considering sharing it with students and colleagues. not sure i buy the small safe driver thing leading to a house obscuring big one, but i’m fairly sure that that’s not the point.

  5. Rani H. Gill says

    Hi Janet – Thanks for your comments. Please feel free to share.

    When you say you’re not sure about the billboard study — is it that you’re not sure it’s a valid study or you’re not sure it’s relevant? (Reference: Freedman, J.L., and S.C. Fraser. “Compliance without Pressure: The Foot in the Door Technique.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4 (1966): 195-203.) The question is what led to the compliance and the willingness to act in a way that appears different. Was it the 3″ sign due to a change in self-image? Was it that all their neighbors agreed to signs too? Not sure – to me it’s about the act of agreeing and how that changes how we behave in the world.

    cheers, rani

Continuing the Discussion

  1. How to motivate ourselves & others | wander@will linked to this post on March 21, 2010

    […] week I asked the question – how do we influence people? This  week is a slightly different question – how do we motivate people? Influence […]

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