Problems with Telling

In my former role as a supervisor and administrator, and in my forever role as a parent, I always have aimed and always will aim at sharing, rather than telling.

Why? Because telling has many negative effects. When you tell someone to do something, the inference is that what the person is doing is wrong or not good enough and that the person has to change. People often don’t mind changing as much as they dislike attempts to be changed or controlled by others. Remember this key point: A change in behavior is as much emotional as it is intellectual. Negative emotions do not bring about positive changes.

Because people perceive telling as criticism, they often become defensive and have a tendency to resist or engage in acts of doing the exact opposite of what someone has told them to do. Even when a parent has an excellent relationship with a child, and even when the young person feels that the parent has the child’s best interests at heart, well-intentioned lectures convey a subtle, negative message that often result in hard feelings.

And think about this: When the parent does the telling, who does the thinking? If we want to be effective in promoting a change, the youngster, rather than the parent, should be doing the reflecting. Telling sends the message that we do not have faith in our children’s decisions. Repeated lecturing erodes children’s self-confidence in their own inner knowing. If youngsters perceive that their parents do not accept their decisions, they tend to make fewer decisions around the parents—with the result that the parents’ faith in their children’s abilities decreases even more, the lecturing begins anew, and another opportunity is lost.

The ineffectiveness of telling is well illustrated in Enlightened Leadership by Ed Oakley and Doug Krug:

The employees went through the insurance company’s training program and were very successful for about a year and a half. After this period of time, sales dropped off, causing the company to complete a fairly intensive investigation. The training approach taught by the company showed how to ask specific kinds of questions, a process that created a bonding with clients. During the process, the salespeople not only learned about the clients’ financial situations and future plans but also something about the people as individuals.

After about 18 months, the salespeople began to anticipate the clients’ responses and decided they could save some time by asking fewer questions and talking more themselves. Sales dropped off; the salespeople no longer bonded to the same degree with their prospective customers. When sales plummeted, the salespeople began talking even more. They began focusing on the fear of losing sales, became discouraged, and the downward spiral of performance went into full gear.

Time that telling saved came at the expense of success.