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One Simple Switch that Guarantees Results

May 21, 2013 // By Marcus Brotherton

What’s the best way to ask somebody for something—a way that guarantees results?
It seldom works well to order, threaten, cajole, wheedle, or beg. Studies have shown that the best way to request things of people, inspire them, or motivate them to action is to ask honestly, directly, and clearly.
Could you please pass the salt?
But … here’s where the art form of requesting surfaces.
Linguistics note that couldis a highly loaded word, similar to can. It’s so loaded that people actually bristle when it’s used. The word sets up defensiveness and entrenches people in their own opinions. It sounds like such a simple word, but it actually backfires. It establishes antagonistic relationships.
It’s because the word couldconnotes a subtle inquiry into a person’s abilities or talents, which is not what you’re saying at all. It faintly implies that a person is unable or lacks talent. And that’s why it silently sets people off.
Here’s what happens when you use the word could.
BOSS: Hey, could you do these reports by Monday?
EMPLOYEE: (thinks to himself). CouldI? Of course I could, you big lout. But I’m going to take the weekend off, like my contract says I can.
HUSBAND: Honey, could you pick up my dry cleaning?
            WIFE: Could I? Well, sure I could, you lazy sack of cheese. But I’ve been working all day wiping the kids’ noses and cleaning the house and writing the thank you notes for our Christmas gifts while you’ve been sitting on your keister eating donuts behind your desk. Why don’t you try and help out once in a while?!
Ever been there?
Enter a simple solution … instead of using the word could,
…switch to using the word would.
Linguistics note that the word would establishes an entirely different dynamic in a relationship. Instead of a person feeling put upon by a request, a person feels honored. The use of would subtly implies that the other person has options. By complying with your request he feels like he’s actually doing you a favor, which makes him feel empowered and even altruistic.
Try the technique with the same examples.
BOSS: Would you be able to do these reports by Monday?
EMPLOYEE: Would I? Of course, Boss. I’m you’re top man. You just watch me in action.
HUSBAND: Honey, would you be able pick up my dry cleaning on your way home from work please?
WIFE: Would I? Of course, dear. Thanks for asking so politely, you sensitive hunk, you. Mmm mmm, kiss, kiss.
Try it for awhile. Switch one simple word in your requests, from could to would, and see what kind of results are achieved.
Question: What’s one request someone made of you recently? How did the person ask it of you, and what was your response?
  • Jeff

    On of my pet peeves, or linguisticuffs for fun. Can you, yep; will you, maybe. Recently, someone asked, do you think we can do this? my response, I think we can. The better question is, do you believe we can do this. Small dofferences but powerful in people’s mind. Great post.

  • Thanks Jeff, good thoughts all around. –MB

  • I worked at a retail shoe store years ago. I would reward pleasant customers with a no charge shoe horn from our freebie bag under the counter. Not so nice customers got charged a dollar so I could get a free soda from the vending machine. One day an elderly lady walked up to the register and said” I’ll take these shoes and gimme one of those shoe horns too. How much are those anyway?” I said ” they cost a dollar but they are free if you know the magic word. Do you know what the magic word is?
    She thought for a minute then exclaimed “DISNEY!!”
    Thanks for the soda grandma.

  • Marcus, I like the observation. I have thought about this many times. I manage people and decided years ago to start many requests with “I need you to…” As long as employees actually like me, this tends to work well in a business context. I then ask them when they can have the task completed by. If it is an acceptable timeframe I go with it since it was their idea. Hopefully they will feel like they are working more with me, not just for me.

  • @ Tuxedo Man … hilarious!

    @ Greg, good thoughts. Thank you.


  • gary sedgwick

    Marcus: I had not thought of how I use could or would when asking. I used would today when asking individuals I work with at school and I believe that I use would almost all of the time. I have two young ladies who are classified as clerical and I am a Veterans Counselor. We communicate many times during the hours that I work. I always conclude by saying thank you when a task is given to them and completed. I frequently inform the two as to how valuable they are to me and the Veteran students.


  • Doug Brochu

    I even upgrade the simple “would” to “Would you kindly” on occasion. you wouldn’t believe how receptive people are to it.

  • @ Gary, thanks for your comment.

    @ Doug, yes, good addition. Thanks.

  • Jeff

    And…When I approach an employee of a store, airline counter, hotel, waitstaff, someone who has been hired to serve me; I begin with, “I hope you can help me”. Rarely has anyone refused to help. Find a copy of The Golden Rule of Schmoozing: The Authentic Practice of Treating Others Well, by Aye Jaye. Invaluable guide to help you interact with people.

  • EL

    All the time my co-workers use could or can, I think it just so ingraved in the English language as the first word that comes to mind when asking a favor. I just used would after reading this post. Thanks.

  • I was in the military. “Could” and “Would” never entered into the directives that were issued by leadership. “Do” was the word that prompted action. It was the character of the leader issuing the directive that provided the level of reaction and response. If the leader was just that, a leader, then no subordinate would falter with their level of energy or quality of effort and attention to detail. If the leader was lacking in character or was undeserving of respect (someone who never demonstrated mutual respect) from their subordinates, then the responses were commensurate to that leader’s characteristics.

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the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.