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Q-and-A with author Dan Pink: Using motivational questioning and more in the classroom

7 min read


From my introduction to author Dan Pink through his book “Drive,” I was amazed at how he could write a book about business that pertained so much to what educators do. It was not in the sense of how to create widgets, which is often a business approach to education, but rather what incents people to do what they do in the best way possible. It was more than just the best way to drive students, but the best way to drive educators to their highest potential as well. For that reason, Dan has been recognized and engaged by national and international education organizations to address their memberships. I have listened to several of his keynotes with never a disappointment. In personal conversations, I have found him to be a really nice guy. I sought him out during a recent trip to D.C. to ask him about his new book, “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.” I was hoping to find his latest book to be as educator-friendly as “Drive.”

You say that today, like it or not, we’re all salespeople. Is that true even of teachers? 

On the first question, the answer is “yes.” When you look at what white-collar workers actually do each day, it turns out they spend a huge portion of their time persuading, influencing and convincing others. It’s what I call “non-sales selling” or “moving” others. Money isn’t changing hands. The cash register isn’t ringing. And the transaction isn’t denominated in dollars, but in time, effort, attention, energy commitment and so on.

This is what teachers do much of their day. Think about, for instance, what a good algebra teacher does. At the beginning of a term, students don’t know much about the subject. But the teacher works to convince his or class to part with resources — time, attention, effort — and if they do, they will be better off when the term ends than they were when it began.

You also say that sales has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous 100. How have the forces causing that change affected education?

The biggest change in the buyer-seller relationship. One reason that selling has a bad rap because most of what we know about it arose in a world of information asymmetry — where the seller always had more information than the buyer and therefore could rip the buyer off. But today, information asymmetry is giving way to something at least close to information parity. That’s changed the game in ways we’ve scarcely recognized. In conditions of information asymmetry, the operative principle is “buyer beware.” In a world of information parity, the operative principle is “seller beware.”

This has affected teaching in some interesting ways. One hundred and fifty years ago, we began to have schools in part because that’s where the information was and teachers were the mechanism by which students accessed that information. Those conditions prevailed for a very long time. But now — thanks to the Internet, mobile phones, social media and so on — students have the same access to information that teachers do. That means that a teacher’s job isn’t to transmit the information, but to equip students with ways to analyze the information, make sense of the information, evaluate the information. What’s more, it has begun to change what happens inside the classroom itself as more teachers move to flipping the classroom — providing the lectures electronically and use class time for hands on work that computers can’t replicate.

What are the underlying principles of this new approach to selling — whether you’re selling your product, your idea or yourself?

The result of the change I just described is that sellers — of anything — need a new set of skills. There is a rich body of research — in psychology, economics, linguistics and cognitive science — that reveals some systematic ways to become more effective in moving others on a remade terrain of information parity. The old ABC’s of sales were Always Be Closing. The new ABC’s of Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity are three qualities that are the platform for effectiveness. Attunement is perspective-taking. Can you get out of your own head and see another’s — a student’s, a colleague’s, a parent’s — perspective. Buoyancy is staying afloat in an ocean of rejection. And clarity is helping students move from accessing information to curating it and from solving existing problems to identifying hidden problems.

On your concept of attunement, what is something a teacher can do to become more attuned with his or her students?

It’s important to understand at the outset why attunement matters so much. All of us today have less coercive power. It’s tougher for bosses, teachers, parents, and so on simply to command something and expect compliance. The better approach is to understand another’s perspective in the hopes of finding common ground.

But that can be a challenge. One sturdy finding of the social science is feelings of power and acuity of perspective taking are inversely correlated. That is, feeling powerful tends to degrade our ability to take another’s perspective. This is important because teachers are often in a position of relative power with regard to their students. So being effective often requires beginning from a different position: Assume that you’re not the one with the power. Think of it as persuasion jujitsu, where you enlist an apparent weakness as a strength. Start your encounters with the assumption that you’re in a position of lower power. That will help you see the student’s perspective more accurately, which, in turn, will help you move them.

What is one other tip teachers might glean from your book?

One of my favorites comes from a technique known as motivational interviewing. With this technique, you can deal with resistance by asking two seemingly irrational questions. So imagine you’ve got a student that simply doesn’t do his homework. Instead of threatening him or punishing him or pleading with him, use the two-question strategy (which I learned from Yale psychologist Michael Pantalon).

The first question is this: “On scale of 1 to 10, with one meaning ‘not the least bit ready,” and 10 being ‘totally ready,’ how ready are you to begin doing homework.”

Chances are, he’ll pick an extremely low number — perhaps 1 or 2.  Suppose he answers, “I’m a 2.”

Then you deploy the second question: “Why didn’t you choose a lower number?”

The second question catches people off guard. And the student now has to answer why he’s not a 1. He might say, “if I did my homework, I might do a little better on tests.” “If I did my homework, I might learn a little more.” “I’m getting older and I know I’m going to have to become a little more responsible.”

In other words, he moves from defending his current behavior to articulating why, at some level, he wants to behave differently. Equally important, he begins to state his own autonomous, intrinsically motivated reasons for doing something. When people have their own reasons for doing something, they believe those reasons more deeply and adhere to them more strongly.

So on a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to use Pantalon’s technique? And why didn’t you choose a lower number?