A great Question to open possibilities. Why should this work?  There are two principles are at play here.      Firstly, we have a need to answer questions, don’t we?     Secondly, the brain works with metaphors according to cognitive linguistics.  For example, in the English language UP is good and DOWN is bad.  Examples:
What question would change your life?

My wife was angry. The foot strap on our new baby buggy had broken and the shop refused to replace or fix it for her as it was out of warranty ….by just one day.

I then suggested that I would go to the shop to return it for an exchange. With some surprise, she turned to me and said, “Well what do you think you can do to change their minds that I couldn’t?”

“Come along with me and we’ll see” I replied and so she did and off we went.

On arrival at the shop, I immediately asked to see the manager and explained what had happened and that in the circumstances I wanted a replacement. The manager simply said, “Sorry, there’s nothing I can do as the buggy is now out of warranty”.

In an attempt to shift her mindset I said, “I know there is nothing you can do, but if there was something what would it be?”

The manager stared at me for a moment and said “No, sorry. There is nothing I can do.”

She had not accepted my question and so I continued, “I understand there is nothing you can do. But if there was, what would it be?”

“No, nothing. Sorry sir,” she replied.

At this point, we were standing directly opposite each other. I therefore moved to her side and we looked down at the buggy together and I then repeated, “I know there is nothing, but if you could what would you do?”

There was then a long silence before she responded in a slightly higher tone of voice, “What would you like to happen?”

“I would like a new one,” I said in her same tone of voice.

The manager pointed to a brand new shiny buggy in the store and quickly replied, “OK, take that one.”

As we walked out of the shop with the brand new buggy, my wife turned to me looking a little confused and said, “How on earth did you do that?”

Ethically this was a win/win situation.   It was a sensible solution for us given that the buggy was only one day out of warranty. The store’s reputation remained intact and we would now continue to use them in the future.

What does this question do?

Let us examine and discover what was going on in this situation.

How do questions affect someone’s thinking? As human beings, we are designed to respond to questions. As long as the question is accepted, we are compelled to answer it.

Therefore, in this example the initial reaction from the manager displayed a non-acceptance of the question. Consequently, the first part of my response to the manager was merely designed to agree with her, “I know that there is nothing you can do”. In NLP this matching of the language is called pacing and it is a fundamental part of the process to begin to establish rapport.

I then moved the conversation on by changing the nature of the question to introduce doubt and open up new possibilities. The simple use of the powerful word “if” introduces doubt…..“I know there is nothing you can do, but if there was something what would it be?”   I had introduced possibility and this assumes that something could be done. How cool is that?

Please note that I repeated the question each time the manager said “sorry” and each time this paced the manager’s speech and her experience.

What then made a difference was where I was standing in relation the manager. When you stand opposite someone, in his or her mind you are opposite to him or her. You are therefore quite literally opposing the other person and this tends to create a stance of confrontation. It is important not to under-estimate the power of this simple idea.

When I then moved to stand physically next to the manager, we were then both on the same side. It was only at this point that she accepted my question. Once accepted the brain looks for options and one clear and immediate alternative was ‘a brand new buggy’. Notably I also shifted the tonality of my own voice to pace and match that of the manager as the conversation neared conclusion.

Elegant and simple.

Why should this work?

There are two principles are at play here.

  • Firstly, we have a need to answer questions, don’t we?
  • Secondly, the brain works with metaphors according to cognitive linguistics.

For example, in the English language UP is good and DOWN is bad.


  •   “He is an upbeat guy.” Good.
  • “He is feeling down.” Bad.
  • “The market is on the up.” Good.
  • “The bottom has falling out of the market.” Bad.

When we stand opposite someone the other person’s brain triggers associations to oppositions.

The dictionary defines opposition as “a hostile attitude or action” or it could also mean “the person or team that you or another player or team has to play against.”

So in the circumstances described above do we really want to trigger such ‘opposing’ thoughts if we want to achieve a successful outcome? No, of course not. However, when we stand with someone on the same side as them, we trigger a different set of associations to indicate that we are now in this together.

Putting this into action

Before we use any technique, we need to have a goal for the communication that is about to take place.

Think of a contentious situation where you would like to create a positive outcome. This could be interacting with your children, discussing an issue with your boss at work or returning an item to a shop.

Decide the outcome you want to achieve, so that you can measure success.

Set up the situation so that you can physically move to be on the same side as the other person.

Here is a tip – if you are sitting, set the chairs so that they are placed at 90 degrees to each other. This works as it is just sufficient to appear that you are still on the same side.

Then use the question we have been exploring in this article.

Be consistent with the question until you get the results you seek. The question still works even if the person knows what you are doing. My kids are on to me using this question and yet it still works:

  • “I know you can’t do your homework tonight, but if you could what would you do?”
  • “I know what you are doing Dad. It’s not going to work.”
  • “I know it’s not going to work, I am just asking what could you do?”
  • “No, Dad I know what you are doing.”
  • “I know you know what I am doing, what could you do tonight?”
  • “Oh, I suppose I could do some maths.”

The trouble is that my wife is now onto me as well. Because of the positive outcome with the buggy, she decided to also train in NLP and is now an NLP Master Practitioner.

”I know you’re too busy to do the washing up tonight dear

…..but if you could what would you do?”

Has she been effective? Well I now have my own pair of marigolds……

What questions have you come across that you have found to be most useful? Please to post them below.

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  1. I have these questions on my wall that i use a lot. Everybody can see them a know what I’m asking but they work. I even find people reading them whilst i’m engaging with them.

    How important will this be in a couple of months
    Is my response appropriate to the situation.
    Can I improve or influence the situation.
    Can I find anything positive in the situation.
    Would I do anything differently next time
    What more do we / I need to understand to ???
    What is the first step we / I need to make to ???
    What happens if I did this / didn’t do this
    What is the impact on ?? If you / I do this.
    Is it worth it.
    What specifically can you do
    What is stopping you.
    What needs to happen for you to ????
    If you could ??? how would you do.
    What can you control, what cant you control.
    And what would you like to happen.
    Why do you think ???
    How did you do ???
    Why did you ???

    1. Louise Waters says:

      Nice questions – is it ok if i pinch them to use?

  2. Hi John,

    I remember this gem from the training.

    What can be done if there is a counter in between you and the person you are communicating with? As I am pretty should they wouldn’t be happy at Airport check in if I went around the other side of the check-in desk 😉


    1. Hi Ben,

      Good to hear from you.

      You have a few options.
      1. Match Tone and Tempo of voice
      2. Hand gestures – not all just the key movement.
      3. Have them look at some detail on a ticket where you would both have to bend slightly. Hence coming together.

      Let me know how you get on.


  3. Fiona mcdonald says:

    Thanks for this , and Martin’s questions , storytelling always helps to get messages across and make you feel positive. It’s my turn to chair a meeting later that has been very dull and inspiring in the past . This post has given me some ideas on how to brighten it up a bit and hopefully make some positive changes.
    Thank you

  4. Donna Hudson says:

    Awesome read John.
    Thank you.

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