Are You Asking for a Not?

This time of year, I see signs, “Please do not touch the tree.” There are plenty of signs that say, “Please do not….”

I often wonder this: Why not ask for the behavior you want?

I understand that the owners/people in charge want us to not do something. I’m a little contrary, especially when it comes to pretty sparkling things, such as Christmas trees. I see the not and want to do it. (Yes, I want to touch the tree!) I’m not alone.

Ironic process theory says when we see something such as, “Don’t think of a pink elephant,” we are more likely to think of one. For me, it works the same way for the Not questions.

If I can’t tell that the action is dangerous—and how dangerous could it be to touch a tree—I’m fascinated by ways I can think of to break that rule.

Why can’t I touch the tree? Because it might fall over. Because they want to make no one walks off with the ornaments. Because of something I can’t imagine. I am sure the people who write the “please don’t” have their interests and mine at heart.

I prefer if people tell me what they want me to do.

Instead of “Please do not touch the tree,” why not ask, “Please admire the tree from this distance” and mark a place on the floor. You might add, “Please take all the pictures of the tree you want instead of touching the tree.”

I was at a client this week, and there’s this lovely request in the Ladies Room: “Thank you for wiping off the countertop for the next guest.”

Here’s what this request asks for:

  • Please wash your hands.
  • Please wipe up the water near your sink.
  • Please treat this bathroom like you would treat your bathroom.

This sign clarifies what the facilities people want, and in a way that’s quite gentle and easy to do.

When we ask people to “not” do something, as in “Don’t walk on the grass,” we aren’t suggesting what we want them to do.

In our agile projects, when we say, “Don’t do big design up front,” we don’t explain how to start with iterative and incremental design. For example, I often ask, “What is the first piece of value you could deliver? How does it provide value?” That’s the conversation I want to have to help people learn options to what they do now.

I once managed a guy who was even more blunt and direct than I am. He asked what senior management thought were embarrassing questions in public, such as “Where is the revenue coming from?” I thought it was a reasonable question. But my managers didn’t like it.

My boss told me to “Make this guy stop asking these questions.” But, that’s not enough of a request. What questions could he ask? When could he ask them? As an employee and a stockholder, he had an expectation to be able to ask and receive a reasonable answer to his questions.

I worked with him to help him learn what he could ask in public and what was a better question in private. Together, we turned the “Don’t ask” to “Here’s what you can do in which circumstances.

Think about your questions. If you’re requesting someone not do something, can you imagine another way to reframe the question, so you are asking them to do something?

That is the question this week: Are you asking for a not?

2 thoughts on “Are You Asking for a Not?

  1. Yves Hanoulle

    With children it’s even worse.

    When you shoot: “don’t run” the only thing they remember is: run

    that said, when my 14 year old is doing annoying stuff like playing with a ball inside, my first urge is to say “don’t play with the ball inside. ” and yet I do know (and teach people) the positive rule…

    1. johanna Post author

      Yves, it’s true! For many of us (who are supposed to be older than children), the “don’t” vanishes. I am pretty sure I said many times when my children were young, “Please take that outside.” I am also sure I didn’t all the time!

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