As many of you know, I am a great proponent of positive terminology. While we must sometimes view things negatively in order to identify a problem to be solved, I prefer, thereafter, to speak about the positive opposite we wish to gain. For example, instead of “war on drugs,” I would prefer a phrase such as, “clean and sober.”
However, even negativity has its place in persuasive communication. An article in the current issue of Psychology Today points out that, when considering a prospective transaction, such as purchasing goods or services, you are more likely to elicit an honest answer from the seller if you ask a specific and negative question, that is, a specific question that assumes there are some problems with the goods or services.
For example, let’s say you are considering buying a used piano. You may get the least useful feedback if you ask for general information, e.g. “Tell me about this piano.” A more specific, but positive, question would be, “What do you like about the piano?” But your best bet for receiving honest feedback on the piano’s flaws is a specific negative question, such as, “What do you dislike about this piano?” or “What problems have you had with this piano?”
Implicit in this advice, though not spelled out in the article, is the fact that the specific negative question is also an open question; it can’t be answered yes or no. In Bridges to Consensus, I have described at some length the many virtues and uses of open questions. One of these is that, while a closed question makes it easy for the respondent to give you minimum information by simply answering “yes” or “no,” an open question, using the word who, what, when, where, how or why, invites elaboration.
Putting this together with the negative assumption suggested in the PT article, the closed negative question, “Does the piano have anything wrong with it?” Is less effective than the open negative question, “What do you like least about this piano?”
Here’s a little exercise for practicing this technique. Try to turn each of the following general or positive questions into an open, negative question:
- You haven’t had any problems with this bicycle, have you?
- How well do most of your patients do after having this type of procedure?
- What do you like about the attorney you are recommending?
Can you think of a transaction you have coming up in which you might use this technique?
 Mary Loftus, “Smooth Encounters: How to Get an Honest Answer,” Psychology Today, March/April 2013, p. 65