Why don't people do what I politely ask them to, even when they say they will?

I ask someone, like a family member, to do something simple (“In the future, would you mind rinsing the sink after dumping your dish so gunk doesn’t dry up and stick to it?” or, “In the future, would you mind throwing away your napkin if you’re done? I just don’t really like eating at a table with trash on it.”) - and they agree without any issue or arguing (they seem more than happy to comply). However, they never do it. They still continue to follow their old habits…regardless of how many times I try to politely ask the same question. Why is this, and is there anything I can do about it?

I hate when people do this sort of thing. Whether it’s about the dishes or something else, this sort of behavior is one of my biggest pet peeves. All you're asking is that someone else change their behavior only a tiny bit so that your quality of life can improve by a lot. I mean... it's not like you're expecting them to donate a kidney. Plus, they said they'd do it. They agreed.

First of all, know that there is hope. Anyone who says you can't change people needs to look at the social science research. People influence each other all the time. We influence each other into making decisions that follow social expectations (norm enforcement), that uphold social conformity (groupthink), that ensure our place in the social group (belonging), and that go along with the majority (bandwagons). In other words, peer pressure is a very real thing. So why can’t we influence those close to us to change in ways that could make our relationships healthier and happier?

We believe we can’t influence other people because when we try, we go about it the wrong way. We fail and then assume it can’t be done. What’s the wrong way? Through rational discussion. The common answer is to having your needs met is to communicate them. But how often have you communicated your needs only to get nowhere? The answer is “too often.”

Rational conversations about your needs don’t get you anywhere for a single reason: people don't do annoying things because they're thinking rationally. Before they drop the dirty dish in the sink, they're not thinking, "Based on my conversation with my family member the other night, I realize that the pros of rinsing this dish outweigh the cons, and so therefore I will rinse."


Chances are, unless they are sociopathic and enjoy seeing you squirm, your family member is acting on autopilot. They're engaging in habit, not in thoughtful action. And rational conversation doesn’t change autopilot behavior.

Habits are hard to break, especially when the person who needs to break them is not the one initiating the change. To change their habitual behavior, your family member has to be mindful, vigilant, and active about what you need, which can feel hard to do when they have thousands of other thoughts they have going on in their heads, thoughts that have nothing to do with how you like dishes put in the sink. So, while they’ll agree with you tonight about rinsing, by tomorrow night they’re focused on their own priorities, and they’re back to their old habits.

So, what do you do? You may need to nudge them. Here's how.

First, be mindful of the trigger that leads to their autopilot behavior. Once that trigger occurs, take action and direct them to engage in new, non-habitual behavior.

For instance, as soon as dinner is done and your family is about to start clearing the table (trigger), make an announcement that you'd appreciate everyone rinsing their own dishes and putting them in the dishwasher (initiation of new behavior). Make sure everyone hears you, and don’t be timid in your request. There is nothing wrong with asking them to do the right thing, so feel confident in that. And don’t anticipate a negative reaction from them, because if you expect them to push back, you’ll make your announcement with less conviction than it deserves.

But also, don’t use a negative tone, because if they associate your request with a negative feeling, they’re less likely to comply on a regular basis.

Then, once you've made the announcement, pay attention to whether they actually perform the behavior you request. If they don't, then this could be evidence that they never intended to do what you asked at all. If this is the case, then you've got a bigger problem, in which case email me back and I’ll help you with that. But for now, let’s assume they’ll rinse their dish (or do whatever else you ask), because it's a small thing and deep down they know you're right.

This is where most people might stop. They’ve made the request and gotten what they wanted. But though this works to get compliance once, this isn’t how you nudge a longer-term change in habit. For a change in habit to happen, you need to offer a reward.

Once they’ve engaged in the new behavior, say or do something that will elicit a positive emotion in them, so they associate rinsing their dish with a feeling they wouldn’t mind experiencing again and again. Thank them, but in a special way. Pause them for a moment, make eye contact, and compliment them for being so thoughtful and caring. Or give them a long hug - anything that will make them feel good enough to believe that their new behavior is worth the effort.

That’s the formula: notice the trigger; request new behavior; offer a reward.

But you can’t do it just once. Habits aren’t formed overnight. You need to do this repeatedly until the new behavior becomes the habit. How do you know when this happens? You test it. After a week or two of following this formula, try saying nothing at the end of dinner, and see what people do. If they revert back to old behavior, then you need to keep trying. If they continue with their new behavior, but then slip, you need to start the process over again.

You might think this is going to take a bit of effort. You're right. You have to be vigilant. You have to remember, on top of the million other things on your mind each day, to follow the formula and nudge them to change.

This might seem unfair. They're the one who's doing the inconsiderate thing. Why do you have to do all the work?

I get it. I hate having to exert the effort when I’m not the problem. But unfortunately, expecting them to do what you ask, even when they agree to it, hasn’t been working, and for a reason. Changing their behavior with nudges rather than with rational conversation may have the best chance of success, relative to all other options.

Plus, you’re already exerting effort each night communicating your needs, so why not just communicate them differently?

Just remember – you’re doing this for your sanity, and your sanity is worth it. The fact that the people you care about will be better versions of themselves in the process... that’s a bonus.