Ask, Don’t Tell

It seems almost too obvious to mention, but nobody really likes being told what to do. It’s as if we are genetically programmed from birth to question authority. And yet, how much of our time is spent on a daily basis either giving instruction or admonition. Sometimes I will ask clients to keep track of their hours to see where they are spending the bulk of their time, and it’s not unusual for many of them to report spending 80% of their time giving either criticism or direction. Parents, too, know well the enormous challenge of getting children to comply with even the simplest of instructions. My 3 year-old could argue a case before the Supreme Court for why he should not be made to go to bed on time. Sometimes you just give up: “Because we are exhausted!”

It’s a simple quality of human nature that people prefer to choose to do things rather than be ordered to do them. People like choice; they also like to be a part of the solution. One of my clients, a young CEO, was having trouble with a talented designer at his company. A very important project was dragging on and on, and with it, a ballooning budget that was keeping my client awake at night. After we had counseled, I encouraged him to make the designer his partner in co-creating this initiative. He took the designer to lunch and said to him, in effect: “Look, we all care deeply about this project, and we know how special it can be, but we have a serious budget issue that I’m very concerned about. Can you step up here and be the leader who sets an example to the rest of the team? Can you be the guy who helps me bring this thing in on time and under budget?”

It was a subtle shift in emphasis, but it broke through months of deadlocked meetings and passive-aggressive emails bouncing back and forth. The designer was happy to be given this responsibility, and said, in effect: “Absolutely, I am 100% that guy. I have some ideas how we can manage the budget and still get the result we want.” And that’s exactly what he did. Because he was motivated, he was able to motivate others to work harder and produce far more with less. Notice, my client did not ambush him or issue an ultimatum, but instead, he simply and carefully explained how and why this was important to him. He went to the key decision maker and asked for his co-operation as someone that he and other people respected: “Can you be the leader here?”

I’ve noticed that this approach tends to work better for most relationships too. Asking for people’s help—rather than directing it—is almost always the smarter way of doing things, regardless of the stakes. While he might disagree, I rarely tell my husband what to do. I always ask. If, for example, I need him to clean out the garage, I don’t say, “Honey, you need to clean out the garage.” I might say something like: “How would you feel about making more room in the garage so maybe we can bring the cars inside?” Or, “Do you think it’s a good idea if we bring some of that stuff down the bulk drop-off this Saturday?” I am of course communicating what I want, but I’m also giving him a choice. And, nice guy that he is, I know he probably wants to help me.

As effective leaders, as good partners, as loving parents – we want for people to want to help themselves, and for that we must guide and actively encourage their autonomy. You want your people to learn so that they become more competent and self-sufficient over time.

One way of doing this is to ask open-ended questions. For example:

What do you think would happen if…

How can you deepen your insight on this?…

What have you not tried?

If you could do that meeting over again, what might you do differently?

What are some ways we could tackle this?

What do you suppose we should do about X…?

Now consider the opposite: how do you feel when you are told exactly what to do? Most of us feel resentment, maybe even obstinacy. Oh yeah? Watch this! And then we do the opposite.

The idea that we can live without directing or somehow controlling everyone around us is novel to some people. But we cannot expect people who are constantly badgered, bullied and criticized to feel good about themselves or their future. Next time you are in conflict with someone, see if you can withhold your criticism for just a moment, and see how this changes the atmosphere. It is not our job to tell them what to do. It’s our job to teach them how to succeed on their own. “Can you be the leader here?” is a powerful statement of intent, and a vote of confidence.

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