Telling people what they “should” do turns them into teenagers.


In trying to compel people to change their opinions or behavior we’ve all been guilty of the biggest mistake of all — telling them what they should or shouldn’t do. I’ve fallen into the trap of nagging friends on social media and when raising teenagers. I tell them what they should do or how they should think, and well, you probably can guess how that turns out.
This plays out a lot in public service and political campaigns. You have seen it, too. Find any voter referendum that failed and I’m guessing at the heart was a “Have to” or “Should” theme. One famous marketing example was the “Just say no” anti drug campaign in the 1980’s. When the Partnership for a Drug Free America researched perceptions, they found that the campaign did not dissuade young people from using drugs and may have convinced them to give drugs a try.
Whether you’re trying to get a relative to buy into your political beliefs or employees to buy into your big idea or people to take better care of themselves, it’s tempting to wag your finger and tell them what you KNOW they ought to believe or do. Here are a few reasons that doesn’t work:
Telling people they should do something makes the opposite behavior seem like a normative. People feel more comfortable engaging in a behavior that they believe their peers engage in. If you tell me that I shouldn’t take drugs, it means there must be a lot of people like me who do take drugs. Therefore I have permission to explore them.
“Shoulding” is often perceived as an attack on one’s identity. When you tell people that they “should” do something, you are also implying that they are deficient in some way. “You shouldn’t smoke” (you have a weak will). “You should review your staff regularly” (you are a bad manager). “You should help the poor” (you are greedy and selfish). Your audience then has a choice: 1) believe that they themselves are jerks or that 2) you are. Guess which one they choose.
“Shoulding” on people is un-American. Americans, in general, don’t like being told what to do. It’s in our DNA. Almost 241 years ago, the most powerful man in the world told us what we should do because he was absolutely always right. So we picked up some muskets. We are a collection of people who left their native countries and overcame great hardships to live free. We are not, as a whole, open to being told what we should do. If you try it, we will (figuratively) pick up our muskets.
So what “Should” you do? (Just kidding)
The first step in any behavior change effort is listening. First understand your audience’s deep needs and how they feel about themselves. Then connect the desired behavior to something they already value. There are time-tested approaches, which I will explain in my next blog. Right now I have to go explain why speed limits are important to one of my kids.
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