Influence through Goodwill and Elaboration Questions

Influence in all sorts of social and political conflicts depends a lot on parties’ perceived goodwill, so naturally, one way to make people more receptive to your views is by showing your goodwill, and a simple and effective way to do that is through elaboration questions.


Goodwill is a critical component of personal credibility, and generally, goodwill suggests having the other party’s best interests at heart. Goodwill is projected through three elements: understanding, empathy, and responsiveness. [1] In essence, goodwill is about showing you appreciate the other person, that you understand their needs, that you value their feelings, and that you accept their right to feel that way.

What are Elaboration Questions?

“To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.” — John Marshall

A simple and effective way to show such appreciation is through elaboration questions. Elaboration questions seek to gain greater understanding of the other person’s viewpoint, with questions such as “Could you tell me more about . . . ?” or “How did you come to this conclusion?”. Such questions don’t try to present an argument in the form of a question or trap the other person.

Research on Elaboration Questions

A 2010 study by Frances Chen, Julia Minson, and Zakary Tormala found that using elaboration questions to show interest in other people’s opinions makes them more receptive to your views. [2] In this study, the experimenters told undergraduate students to prepare for an online debate about the proposed compulsory comprehensive graduate exams.

All the students opposed such proposal. In the first stage, the participants put forward their arguments against this proposal. Then, they received their opponents’ arguments, which were in fact scripted by the experimenters. Some participants received only their opponents’ arguments, while others were also asked the elaboration question, such as this: ‘‘But I was interested in what you’re saying. Can you tell me more about how come you think that?”

Merely asking this elaboration question made the subjects more receptive to the opposing views. They were willing to receive more information supporting the other student’s views, and they were more willing to have a future conversation with their debate counterpart on this issue.


  1. James C. McCroskey and Jason J. Teven, Goodwill: A Reexamination of the Construct and its Measurement, Communication Monographs, 66, 90-103 (1999).
  2. Frances S. Chen, Julia A. Minson, Zakary L. Tormala, Tell Me More: The Effects of Expressed Interest on Receptiveness During Dialog, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46, 850-853 (2010).