“How Can We? vs. “Can We?”: An Invitation to Collaboration

How Can We Collaborate?

As many of you know, I am an enormous fan of Harvard professor, Ellen Langer’s study that shows that giving people the “because” behind why you are asking them to do something increases the possibility of cooperation from 60 to 94%.

Last week, I learned that Professor Langer had also been focusing on the small—but, to me, incredibly important—distinction between asking people, “Can we?” vs. “How can we?”

Now that’s the kind of thing that turns me on.

What’s so exciting about it? Well, consider this following, easy, context: how often have you been asked, “Can we agree to disagree?”

Now I don’t know how that lands for you, but if you’re anything like me it’s the kind of statement that gives you a rash: even if you end up saying, “Yes,” you’re likely to be thinking, “No.”

And that’s not doing anything for anybody.

If, however, someone were to say to me, “How can we agree to disagree?” I would be intrigued. (Have we met? I enjoy a challenge.)

Why? Because “How can we?” asks me to become involved. It requests my collaboration rather than my capitulation—and regardless of how you may feel about challenges, I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t enjoy collaborating more than capitulating.

Another way to incorporate “How can we…?” is if you are coping with someone argumentative/upset/distracted.

Why? Because asking, “Can we…?” in that moment, will—more likely than not– invite a yes or no response.

Asking “How can we…..?”, however, may well be enough to catch their attention—to get them out of binary thinking and involve them in problem solving rather than finger pointing or blame-assigning or buck passing.

So the next time you’re faced with a situation where you might say, “Can we…..?” I invite you to add a “How” in front.

I think you will be amazed at the wealth of possibilities that pour in.

Frances Cole Jones