We do a lot of telling and directing with children. Right? That’s because they don’t yet have the life experiences or the cognitive ability to figure some things out.
For example, when they are near hot objects, we tell them, “Don’t touch that; it will burn you!” and, hopefully, they steer clear of the hot object. Without the instruction, they may look at a hot grill, feel the heat from a distance, be curious, and touch it. They didn’t know that it would burn them. They learn from experience. For the same reason, when you ask a young child, “Why did you do that?” you get a blank stare or “I don’t know.” It’s also why after your teenager has made an unwise move, you may feel compelled to ask, “If your friend jumped off the cliff would you follow right after them?”
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It’s Different with Adults
Adults with whom you live, work, and work for you are unlike the children described above. They have a variety of life experiences that inform their behavior. Most can think for themselves and figure things out, often with good results. They can think critically, see relationships, project possible outcomes, and identify and solve problems. As a result, they don’t need as much “telling.” With a little time and reflection, internally and with others, they can figure it out for themselves.
Defaulting to a “telling” approach in our relationships with children or adults is typical. You’ve probably practiced it more so that it’s become a habit. As a result, it seems easier and quicker. And you are used to being on the receiving end of “telling” so it may be the only approach you know. But telling and directing adults (or even older teenagers) does not work as it does with children. After about one minute of telling an adult what to do, that adult may begin to hear you, like Charlie Brown hears his teacher, “Wah, wah, wah.”
In addition, telling can produce a defensive reaction in which the adult enters a fight, flight, freeze, or appease mode. In this mode, they stop hearing the message clearly, lose the ability to think creatively and see options, cannot communicate clearly, and the ability to concentrate and learn significantly diminishes.
Asking Leads to Learning
“Never tell a person something you can help them discover for themselves.” This is a non-negotiable rule for helping an adult (or even children) develop a new skill, learn a new procedure, acquire needed information, or correct undesirable performance. NOTE: If they can’t seem to discover for themselves, you can offer to tell them.
Questions (versus telling) help discovery, increase awareness, and lead to making learning stick. The goal of using questions to teach is to help an individual become aware of the problem more quickly, think critically, and do their own problem-solving. Hopefully, this will make them more independent and less reliant.
Using questions is a practiced art. You must develop an attitude of curiosity and wonder as an essential foundation for using questions to help you and others learn. If you use questions without these foundational attitudes, you’ll find yourself using leading questions to push an agenda for action versus learning.
In our next edition, I’ll offer you a tool that includes questions to use if the person with whom you are working needs . . .
- More information.
- Skill improvement.
- Help to solve a problem.
It will also include questions to use:
- If you receive credible criticism.
- To increase productivity and effectiveness in setting and reaching goals for self or helping others.
Your first reaction to using questions as a regular practice may be, “I don’t have the time or patience to use this approach. I prefer to keep telling them what to do.” You can keep “telling,” but this approach will ultimately cost you more time and get poorer results. If you “tell,” you will continue to have to “tell.” But, if you train the person, to solve their problems using questions you can get out of that role of solving their problems for them to other responsibilities that only you can do.