42nd Street Company (#42stc)

Ask or tell?

By on October 26, 2013

In the mid 90’es I attended a lecture in change management, by Niels Bek, organised by Delta, in Denmark. As an example of how change agents can cause resistance, Mr Bek told the following case story.

A group of people was given an assignment. First divide in half, and then organise into pairs of two. The first half was asked to walk around in the city and ask people about the time. The other half should similarly walk around, but instead tell the time. The groups would later meet to compare experiences.

What kind of reactions do you think that the two different kind of groups had to their questions?

What happened was, that the pairs who asked about the time was told the time. All persons asked were friendly and willing to help.

The pairs who told the time had on the contrary very unpredictable reactions. The responses varied from positive surprise to almost aggressive reactions to being told the time without a reason or need.

This illustrates the big difference between asking and telling. When you ask, people are helpful. When you tell you have no control of the response.

The way I use this is to always think if I’m “asking” or “telling”. As examples, I always start workshops by asking for people’s expectations, or when presenting ideas and techniques, try to find ways in which I can connect them to real problems or situations for the people present.

When I have failed in a discussion, I can very often trace it back to a situation, where there was too much telling and too little asking. A simple trick is to write down your “opening phrases” and see if they end with “!” or “?”.