Ask, Don’t Tell

A huge frustration for many parents happens when their kids don’t do what they’re told. That could be chores, studying, getting up at a certain time, and the list goes on and on and on.

Quite often I’ll overhear a parent saying something like this, “I told you to…” And therein lies the problem. Psychologically, telling someone what to do is never as effective as asking. Some parents reading that might protest saying they shouldn’t have to ask because they’re the parent. I’m sure some of that goes back to how they were brought up.

If you’re a parent who simply thinks you should be obeyed, feel free to keep telling but I would remind you of a well-known definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If it’s not working well now, then what makes you think it will work any better tomorrow?

In addition to telling, I’m sure many parents have tried raising their voices or tagging their commands with the threat of punishment. That might work in the military where the number one goal is unquestioned obedience because lives may hang in the balance. Not so with emptying the dishwasher or doing homework.

There is a principle of influence known as consistency, which tells us people feel internal psychological pressure and external social pressure to be consistent in what they say and do. Bottom line: we feel good about ourselves when our words and deeds line up.

Asking taps into consistency because once someone tells you they will do something they try harder to do it partly because they feel better about themself. If they know others heard them commit then the pressure ramps up even more.

Telling someone what to do leaves him or her several outs:

  1. I didn’t hear you.
  2. I never said I would.
  3. I was going to get to it later.

To make asking more effective, make sure you tag it with a reason using the word “because.” You want to do this because studies show using “because” gets a high response rate. This is so due to conditioning from childhood. I’m sure many of you reading this had a parent who used to say, “Because I said so!” whenever you dared to question them. Upon hearing that little phrase you probably got your butt in gear!

Here’s an example I’ve often shared during talks. I might ask my daughter, “Abigail, will you please empty the dishwasher before you leave for school because we have people coming over tonight?”

If she says she can’t because she’s running late I would come back with, “Okay, can you do it as soon as you get home, before you leave for work?” I strategically left myself a fallback alternative in case she had a reason she couldn’t do what I asked. I do this because studies on the principle of reciprocity show people quite often meet a a second request with a “Yes” response. When you give a little other people feel they should give a little too.

Will your kid do what you want every time? No, but I’m willing to bet you’ll get what you want a lot more than you’re getting right now with this method. Considering the fact that this approach hardly takes any more time, you really have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain. Why not give it a try?

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