Chocolate Pillow | The subtle power in one word
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The subtle power in one word

19 Jul The subtle power in one word

Hey again peeps!  As many of you know, I am very keen on the psychology of complaints and complainers, and how they can be responded to.  Recently I cam across something that I wanted to share with you.  This will just be a quick post!

Whenever people deal with complaints, there is a common point where you begin to negotiate and make offers or suggestions towards a resolution.  But have you ever thought about just how you phrase this question?

There is a common thing with all questions in that they all seem to offer a choice of some form, at very minimum they tend to force a response (except in the case of sarcastic or rhetorical questions).  This response may gain agreement or rejection or even just acceptance, but have you ever wondered how one simple word in the question can change the entire likelihood of the response?

Here is an example:

  1. Can you accept a £50 discount?
  2. Will you accept a £50 discount?
  3. Could you accept a £50 discount?
  4. Would you accept a £50 discount?

Which option would you phrase it with?  Most people go for option 2 – ‘will’ instead of the others.  But what does this mean?

Options 1 and 3 – ‘Can and Could’ – are about possibility.  They say something is possible, not necessarily definitive.  They still allow for rejection, so you say ‘Can you…’ or ‘Could you…’ with the hope of a positive response, but they still allow for rejection.  However, the psychological impact of these words closes the immediate possibility of rejection to a smaller scope.  In other words, someone is more likely to agree to doing something when you say ‘Could’ or ‘Can’.  ‘Could’ however is more open and allows more chance of rejection whereas ‘Can’ is generally more associated with positive responses – ‘Yes, I can’; ‘we can’; ‘you can’ – they are used in arguments to refute possibilities – how many times have you had someone saying ‘Well get me someone who can…’ or ‘Surely you can do….’?.  Can is a bit more manipulative than could. Can is also possibly used where someones ability is being questioned – so where someone is very much a person who believes they can do everything, giving them a ‘Can’ question is more likely to get them to do it as you are in fact asking whether they are able to do it!  Could is useful for people who are less confident but keen to prove themselves – asking whether they could do something is again questioning ability but in a more subtle way that demonstrates you have mild doubt.

Option 4 – ‘Would’ – is more indirect.  It is saying that if you made a firm offer, then they have a further choice to make.  So saying ‘Would you accept a free upgrade?’ suggests that you are going to make that offer should they say they may accept it.  It is a bit ‘fluffy’ and not a firm offer, it is a ‘If i make this offer, will you accept it?’ question.  It is useful when you want to demonstrate ability in someone also – saying ‘Would you go and…’ suggests you know they can do it but have doubt whether they would desire to do it.

Option 2 – ‘Will’ – is the most direct and the most formal – it is best used in formal scenarios where you need to garner a positive response as it is the most firm.  Saying ‘Will you accept a free upgrade?’ says ‘here is my offer, accept it or deny it’ – it is very subtly different and slightly more powerful than the other options as it creates a firm choice.  Try answering a ‘Will you…?’ question without giving a firm acceptance or denial; its very difficult.  Using a ‘Will you…’ questions tells the person you know and expect


Interesting isn’t it – how one word can be so subtly manipulative and powerful!  Try it next time you ask a question!

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Matt Shiells-Jones

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'

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