real life

The secret to getting people to do what you want

What if I told you I could bring peace to your household? What if I said there was just one thing you need to do to get your child/teenager/partner / to do what you wanted?

I could offer you the sugar-coated version where you would promise goodies like gold stars, financial incentives, praise, or other rewards for getting people to do the things you want them to do. Kind of like: “If you do this, you’ll get that.”

Then there’s the negative control. You use threats, punishment, time-out, or aggression to demand compliance. Kind of like: “If you do this, you’ll get that.”

They’re the same thing – using our power to make someone comply with our wishes. The problem is that people don’t like being told what to do, no matter how good and worthwhile it may be. The law of physics applies in relationships too – Force creates resistance.

Say for example a mother wants her child to learn the piano (because that’s what she was taught for two years as a child. Of course, she hated it back then and was miserable about it, but with hindsight she wishes that she’d stuck with it).

The child starts lessons enthusiastically, but within a month or two the daily practice overrides the initial enthusiasm. The child refuses to practise. Predictably, the mother starts to use power to bribe, demand, threaten, and ultimately force the child to do something he or she simply does not want to do!

The harder we push someone to do something they don’t want to do, the more likely it is that they’ll push back and insist that you can’t make them do anything. Invariably this leads to problems such as:

  • The person will only act the ‘right’ way when the person who holds the power is in the room.
  • Kids whose parents use power-based strategies at home to force compliance are much more likely to be bullies, using these same strategies to force compliance in the schoolyard.
  • An inability to regulate and control emotions.
  • Self esteem/Self worth issues. When people are only rewarded for doing things that someone else deems worthy they may question whether they’re worthy at times when rewards aren’t forthcoming.

In fact one of the greatest predictors of burnout in the workplace is not too much work. It’s a sense that the employee has no control over what is happening.

But there is a third alternative: a way of guiding people towards doing the right things but for the right reasons.

When we use ‘controlling’ techniques we ‘do things’ to people to ‘make’ them do what we want – the alternative is to work with people by trying to understand their motivation and then explaining why we’re asking for a change – and leaving it up to their good judgement to make that change.


For example my 11 year-old daughter was recently listening to a song that contained material my wife and I found offensive. It dealt with sexualisation of women, describing them as objects to satisfy a man and nothing more.  If I were to use control to stop her listening I would have bribed or threatened her. My demands that she not listen to that music would have been met with resistance or it would have pushed the music listening ‘underground’.

Instead we talked about the song, why she liked it (catchy tune, all her friends sing it) and its content. We discussed values that mattered to all of us as a family. At the conclusion of our discussion our daughter said, “I’m going to have to delete lots of songs from my playlist.”

At no time was she asked to do that. She chose to do it autonomously. My wife and I had listened to her, we explained our reasons and she made the decision.

Decades of research shows that if the relationship matters more than the outcome, the use of ‘control’ (whether negative or positive) is far less effective than autonomy supportive practices.

In spite of the research, many parents, bosses, and teachers feel like if they don’t remain in control it will all fall apart but
forcing people to do things creates resistance and leads to anger and deception. It ignores the person’s personal values and desires and it explicitly or implicitly threatens punishment. Even greater than that: it jeopardises relationships.

Certainly food for thought when you want to get people on your side.

Justin Coulson is a husband and father of 5, and a parenting researcher at the University of Wollongong, where he also lectures in social and positive psychology. Justin blogs at

Do you use a reward and punishment system, threaten (even covertly) your children or your colleagues or do you allow other people to find their way as you guide them toward your ideas?  How do you get people to come around?