Restricted Freedom and Persuading Others

Recently on a flight home from a training session I did what I normally do on a Southwest flight – I grabbed the first available aisle seat upon boarding. After I settled in, the flight attendant asked if I wanted to move back a row. She was in the emergency row and reminded me I could not recline my seat. I declined because I normally don’t recline my seat anyway.

A few moments later I began to regret my decision because the thought crept in, “What if I want to recline?” Suddenly having my freedom restricted caused angst even though the restriction was on something I hardly ever do. Scarcity was at work on me! This principle of influence tells us we want things more as they become less available and it doesn’t just apply to goods and services; it applies to our freedom of choice.

A good bit of scarcity’s work on our psyche has to do with not losing out on opportunities because that restricts our freedom.  If you’ve raised kids undoubtedly you’ve seen this. Isn’t it the case that more often than not they want whatever they’re not supposed to touch, taste, smell, watch, listen to or play with?

That doesn’t go away as adults. The moment someone tells us we can’t do something there’s a natural impulse that rises up in us, “Who are you to tell me I can’t…?”

As persuaders, we’d do well to remember this because there are times when our well-intentioned communication backfires because our restrictions only make the other person want the restricted thing even more! There are times when we’d be better off taking a wait and see attitude rather than jumping in with a command – don’t, you can’t, you’d better not, etc.

If you have to make such statements you’d do well to help the other person internalize why the restriction is actually in their best interest. This taps into the principle of consistency. People typically don’t resist their own beliefs, values and reasons, so helping them form those will go a long way toward them believing the restriction is actually good for them.

Here is a very personal example. As a parent I believe it’s in my daughter Abigail’s best interest to abstain from sex for many reasons. But those are my reasons not hers and that means they might not last very long. When she was a freshman in high school she met a nice guy, who was a senior and although they were not “boyfriend and girlfriend” they were more than just friends. A short time after going to college he said it would probably be best if they didn’t keep going like they were and Abigail was crushed. Perhaps you can remember the feeling from your first love.

Sometime after that Abigail and I were driving somewhere and the subject of sex came up so I asked her, “Why do you think it’s wrong to have sex before marriage?” Right away she said, “Because the Bible says so.” So, I asked, “Why do you think the Bible says so?” Immediately she replied, “Because God says so.”

I probed more, “Why do you think God says so?” She was stumped so I asked, “Remember how bad you felt when he broke up with you? All you did was hold hands and have intimate conversations. How do you think you’d feel now if you’d given yourself to him?” I could see from the look on her face that she got it in the deepest part of her being.

I went on to tell her when God, the Bible or her mom and I ask her to refrain from things it’s not because we don’t want her to have fun. On the contrary, we love her and want her to love life and enjoy it to the fullest! With more experience under our belts we know the pitfalls of the decisions many teenagers make. We talked more about sex, marriage and relationships and as we did so she was generating her own reasons for her behavior.

Will she always do what her mom and I think is best or right? No, but then again, we’re not the final arbitrators on right and wrong, good and bad. And it’s been interesting to watch her grow up and make choices at her young age that are far better than we made at that age…and perhaps well into our 30s.

So, the takeaway for you is this – be careful about what you restrict and how you go about it. When you do have to make certain restrictions be sure to help the other person generate their own reasons because that will lead to better, longer lasting behavior.

P.S. I wrote this during the flight home and not being able to recline was a non-issue.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.


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