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Steering clients towards particular choices

Dr. Simon Moss


Coaches, mentors, supervisors, and counselors, as well as employees involved in sales or customer service, often feel compelled to persuade someone to choose some course of action. A coach might want to encourage a client to behave more assertively--challenging managers whose demands are unreasonable rather than acquiescing dutifully. Mobile telephone retailers might want to encourage their customers to choose a more expensive plan.

Nevertheless, two difficulties often transpire when individuals attempt to compel another person to engage in some course of action. First, when clients are instructed to engage in some behavior, they feel less committed to this course of action (see also Silvia, 2006). In contrast, if individuals are granted the opportunity to arrive at a decision themselves--a decision that evolves and materializes gradually but surely--the effort they invest in this choice instills a sense of commitment to this action. They feel a sense of ownership towards this decision (O'Driscol, Pierce, & Coghlan, 2006) individuals are more inclined to cherish anything they feel they own, called the mere ownership effect (e.g., Nuttin, 1987).

Second, when clients feel obliged to engage in some course of action, and their sense of autonomy or dependence subsides, they become more likely to experience an array of negative emotions. For example, as their sense of autonomy abates, every task they need to complete feels taxing, not inspiring, and inconsequential, not significant (e.g., Levesque & Pelletier, 2003 & see Self determination theory). Rather than feel engaged, immersed, or riveted--feelings that autonomy tends to arouse--these individuals become weary, exhausted, and ultimately jaded (also see Ego depletion).

A decline in autonomy not only promotes exhaustion, but also can evoke anxiety, agitation, and apprehension. As anxiety escalates, individuals become more inclined to direct their attention towards potential shortfalls and problems, called the mood congruent effect (e.g., Siemer, 2005). Hence, their focus shifts to the difficulties and complications that some course of action could evoke. They become more dubious about the recommendations of their coaches, supervisors, or advisors, and these relationships might even sour.

Coaches, mentor, supervisors, counselors, and indeed many employees, must thus resolve a seemingly intractable paradox. Their role is to change the behavior of another person--to foster growth, to incite progress, or to modify habits. But, their approach must be to afford choice, to resist the compelling temptation to impose their own belief and opinions.

To reconcile these conflicting responsibilities, these individuals must invite each client to arrive at a decision autonomously, while subtly and delicately steering this person towards more adaptive courses of action. Their role is, somehow, to ensure that clients reach an optimal decision themselves.

Overcoming inflexibility

Individuals often like to deny or disavow their faults, flaws, and failings. Errors, shortfalls, and failures are often ascribed to the incompetence of managers, to the ambiguity of instructions, to the scarcity of resources, or to the will of god. These explanations might protect the self esteem of these individuals, and even maintain their reputation. However, such attributions stifle any motivation in these individuals to adapt their approach, enhance their skills, or extend their knowledge as means to prevent similar difficulties in the future. These individuals remain stagnant, oblivious to the opportunities they are foregoing.

Future hopes and values

Step 1. To ensure that clients do not ascribe their failures only to factors they cannot control, these individuals should be encouraged to reflect upon their hopes and aspirations. They could be asked "If everything possible unfolded in your favor, what are some of the goals and aspirations you would like to reach in the next five years? Have these aspirations changed since you were younger?" For example, clients might posit that one of their aspirations is to establish a business that employs homeless children.

After individuals reflect upon their hopes and aspirations in the future, instead of their duties and obligations now, they reflect on a more extensive range of reasons to explain their failures or shortfalls (Molden & Higgins, 2008). When individuals reflect upon their duties and obligations, their principal motivation is to minimize shortfalls or errors. When they attempt to understand the causes of their failures, they confine their focus to a few justifications only--concerned they might propose some unsuitable explanations otherwise, violating their goal to minimize errors. Because they contemplate only a subset of explanations, they become more inclined to disregard any justifications they would prefer to overlook: such as their own incompetence, ineptitude, or indolence. A focus on future aspirations, not immediate duties, circumvents these limitations.

Step 2. Next, these clients should be invited to identify an activity they have undertaken in the past that, either deliberately or inadvertently, aligned with this goal or aspiration. Perhaps, these clients had attended a seminar on small business, but merely to accompany a friend. Nevertheless, they might have acquired insights that could facilitate their endeavor to employ homeless children.

Step 3. Furthermore, these clients should be asked to reflect upon whether or not they are flexible--willing to adapt and change in their pursuit of growth and progress--rather than rigid and obstinate. They could be asked, "Are you someone who is prepared to change as a means to achieve your goals?"

When individuals are asked whether or not they are willing to change as a means to progress, previous memories of their flexibility become more prominent (e.g., see Fitzsimons & Shiv, 2001). They become more inclined to perceive themselves as adaptable rather than unyielding.

This perception increases the likelihood they will, indeed, behave flexibly and adaptively, especially after they reflect upon the aspirations and values they have attempted to fulfill (Cohen, Sherman, Bastardi, Hsu, McGoey, & Ross, 2007). That is, after individuals remember times in which they attempted to pursue their values, they experience a sense of integrity. To maintain this integrity, they become more inclined to choose courses of action that align with their perception of themselves. If they perceive themselves as willing to change, they will indeed behave flexibly, for example.

Biasing the options in favor of preferred alternatives

Once individuals have incited a receptivity to change--a willingness to challenge past behaviors--in their clients, they should convey several courses of action. They could, for example, highlight that clients could either enroll in a course, read books, or refrain from extending their expertise.

In these instances, the individuals might have formed an opinion--an opinion derived from previous experience or empirical evidence--about which of these alternatives the client should choose. Perhaps, they feel that only a recognized course will instill the discipline that is needed to acquire the requisite business skills.

Step 1. To steer clients towards a specific course of action, without imposing this opinion or withholding information, individuals should compare the alternatives on one attribute at a time--such as utility, convenience, or cost. In particular, these individuals should first consider the attributes that underscore the merits of their preferred alternative. Only later, should these individuals consider the attributes that highlight the complications of this option.

For example, to steer their clients towards enrolling in a course, these individuals might first compare the alternative courses of action on the diversity of knowledge they might acquire. They might maintain, "Certainly, courses present more diverse information that do books". Later, however, these individuals might compare the courses of action on attributes that favor books, such as cost. They could concede, "Admittedly, books are relatively inexpensive".

After this discussion, clients are more inclined to choose the option that initially seemed favorable. In this example, the clients would initially, albeit hazily, perceive the course as more viable. This preference then biases their contemplation of subsequent issues, such as convenience or cost (Carlson, Meloy, & Russo, 2006). Because they, initially, prefer the course to the book, they will tend to dismiss the importance of convenience and cost. Hence, even after a balanced and comprehensive discussion of the alternatives, the clients will still be swayed towards the course.

Biasing the degree or magnitude of some estimate or target

Coaches would often like their clients to formulate loftier goals. Supervisors might want their employees to set more challenging sales targets. Sales employees often hope their customers will purchase more expensive alternatives. In each instance, these individuals would like to bias a quantitative estimate--such as the difficulty of a goal, the magnitude of some target, or the price of some product.

Order in which issues are discussed

Step 1. Individuals who would like to bias these estimates or judgments must present the other person with a more radical alternative first. For example, consider a coach who would prefer their client to attend, at least, one conference every quarter. To incite these clients to adopt this goal, the coach could propose, "How many conferences do you think you should attend each year: ten perhaps, or five, or two?". Alternatively, they could ask "Do you think you should attend more or less than, say, five conferences".

If individuals first propose an elevated magnitude, such as ten conferences a year, the client will initially form an estimate that approximates this quantity. Admittedly, they will adjust this quantity, perhaps attenuating the number of conferences they plan to attend from ten to six. Nevertheless, research indicates that, in most circumstances, these adjustments are limited (see Donoho, 2003 & see also Anchoring and adjustment). In other words, the first estimate of clients, even if a cursory thought, biases the final estimate.

Number of considerations

Step 2. Furthermore, individuals should ask the client to identify a couple of drawbacks or complications with the alternative they would like to denigrate, albeit subtly rather than overtly. They might, for instance, ask "Can you think of two or three problems with reading books".

Alternatively, these individuals could ask the client to identify a couple of benefits or advantages with the course of action they would like to endorse. To illustrate, they could ask "Can you think of two or three benefits with enrolling in a course".

Individuals can readily identify two or three problems with any of the alternatives, such as reading books. Because they can, so effortlessly, uncover these problems, they assume, perhaps unconsciously, that many other complications are possible (e.g., Haddock, 2002). Their attitudes towards this alternative will tend to diminish. Likewise, individuals can easily specify two or three advantages of any alternative--and thus assume this option must confer many other benefits as well (see also Ease of retrieval).

Biasing behavior rather than choices

Rather than steering their clients towards a specific choose, individuals can instead ask questions that affect behavior in the future instead of decisions now.

Step 1. To encourage clients to engage in behaviors in which the benefits are not altogether apparent--perhaps confronting their manager or speaking on TV--they should be asked a hypothetical question. Specifically, they should be asked whether or not they would enact this behavior if such an act did indeed promote some key advantages. For example, they could be asked "Would you confront your manager if this dialogue did instigate an improvement in the workplace culture?" or "Would you speak on TV if this opportunity did generate an escalation in sales?"

These hypothetical questions evoke favorable thoughts about the proposed courses of action. For example, suppose that individuals were asked whether or not they would confront their manager if this dialogue did, ultimately, improve the culture and climate of the organization. In response, these individuals, perhaps inadvertently, are more inclined to focus their attention on the benefits of this act (Fitzsimons & Shiv, 2001). As a consequence, they will become more inspired to enact this behavior in the future.

Step 2. To incite their clients to engage in behaviors that are unequivocally beneficial, but either tedious or taxing, individuals should first emphasize the importance of aligning their behavior with their values--not with the expectations of anyone else. They might assert "I know you're ready to engage in behaviors that align with your values or instincts, and not worry about what others, like me, expect". Then, these clients should be asked to estimate the probability they will undertake this act. For example, they could be asked "What is the likelihood you will attend all of these seminars?"

After individuals are asked this question, the benefits of this act become more prominent. In this example, they become more cognizant of the benefits that seminar could afford, which guides their decisions in the future (Sprott, Spangenberg, & Fisher, 2003). This question is especially likely to affect individuals whose behavior is more aligned to their own predilections and values--and do not adapt to accommodate the expectations or preferences of anyone else (Spangenberg & Sprott, 2005). This question is also more effective if individuals can imagine the behavior vividly (Levav & Fitzsimons, 2006).

Reversing decisions

Sometimes, clients will arrive at decisions that perhaps seem unsuitable. To challenge these decisions--subtly rather than explicitly--they should be asked several questions.

After individuals engage in an enjoyable or existing activity, they become more receptive to information that contradicts their existing attitudes. That is, their mental energy is replenished, and this energy has been shown to curb the usual inclination of individuals to consider only the information that confirms their opinions (Fischer, Greitemeyer, & Frey, 2008 & see confirmation bias).

Step 1. To shift the opinion of other people, attempt to arrange a meeting after they have engaged in a pleasurable activity . During these times, these individuals are more willing to contemplate information that diverges from their opinions.

Step 2. These clients should be asked to summarize the benefits and drawbacks of their choice. They could, for example, be asked "What do you feel are the benefits and drawbacks of reading books rather than attending courses?"

This question enhances the likelihood they will shift their opinion (McGlone, Kobrynowicz, & Alexander, 2005). That is, individuals usually form a subjective impression of which course of action they would like to pursue. When asked to explicate the benefits and drawbacks of this alternative, these subjective impressions cannot be conveyed. Instead, only tangible features can be readily communicated. Their attention is diverted from their original rationale to select this course of action. Furthermore, difficult questions--that is questions that are difficult to answer--also instills in individuals a sense of uncertainty, which also diminishes their rigidity and conviction (Muthukrishnan & Watheiu, 2006).

Sometimes, clients feel almost ashamed of changing their decision or behavior. They might have always read books, rather than attended courses, in the past. Any change to their behavior implies their previous approach was incorrect--a realization that evokes a sense of regret and shame (see also Escalation of commitment).

Step 3.To override this problem, these clients should be encouraged to consider how the situation has changed. They could be informed that "Because technology has improved, training is now more useful than before".

Consequently, if clients decide to change their behavior, they will eb unlikely to feel regret or shame. They can convince themselves their past approach was applicable in the past, but might not be suitable now. They will not feel committed to their previous course of action (see also Brockner, 1992).

Step 4.Next, clients could also be asked to reflect upon their intuitions rather than explicit reasons. They could be asked "You don't need to tell me why, but what is your hunch or intuition about which alternative is better. In your heart of hearts, should you read more books or attend more training sessions?"

When individuals trust their intuition, rather than confine their thoughts to explicit reasons, they become more willing to change their behavior. They do not feel as committed to their previous approach. They embrace flexibility and change (see Wong, Kwong, & Ng, 2008).

Product placement

Step 1. In retail stores, products should be placed alongside some object that is associated with desirable attributes. To illustrate, suppose retailers wanted to imply their shoes are durable. They should, if possible, place a very durable but unrelated object near these shoes, like a diamond.

Customers, often unconsciously, assume the characteristics of one object, like a diamond, will infiltrate other items that are located nearby (Mishra, Mishra, & Nayakanuppam, 2009). That is, individuals tend to presume that properties of objects are, in essence, contagious. Individuals often purchase items that are close to very desirable rather than undesirable objects.


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Last Update: 5/11/2016