Don't Ask, Don't Yell - Just Task and Tell

It is a common and vexing problem that children often don't listen or do what they are told. Actually, the problem is not limited to children: spouses, parents, friends, co-workers, vendors, and peers are frequently the perpetrators of forgetfulness, disobedience, or mindless underperformance. It is a frustration that all of us have experienced. For some, this underpins the daily battle to get things done and becomes the bane and strain of relationships.

The knee-jerk response to repeated under performance is remonstration: an arpeggio of criticism ranging from reminding and disparagement to scolding and a crescendo of intense raised voices and yelling. Unfortunately, this natural and seemingly justifiable, automatic response is counterproductive and gradually intensifies the habit or "dance" of nagging, arguing, and resentment. It reflects the age-old truth that "If you keep doing more of what you're doing, you're gonna get more of what you've already got."

Most people recognize this; but the problem is what to do otherwise and how to do it to obtain a different and better result. When things don't go right or when people seem unmotivated, willful, or defiant, it is tempting to become provoked and critical, and to overreact or nag. It is easy to succumb to the justifications and rationalizations that threats and reason will evoke a positive change in behavior from those who avoid or underperform.

When the mismatch between your demonstrations and subsequent satisfactory responses becomes obvious, you are ready to do something better. You can turn bad habits into better performance by employing some simple techniques that will save you time, energy, and frustration. I've coined an epithet to summarize the process:

Don't ask, don't yell-just task and tell.

I'll explain how this works; but first, let's review the behavioral paradigm that determines how habits (both favorable and unfavorable) form and increase the likelihood that you will "get more of what you've already got."

Reinforcement Rules

There is a basic principle by which people learn and form habits. It is called reinforcement. This is a process that occurs for everyone throughout life, a part of nature that helps us form associations among events, know what to expect, and perform efficiently and automatically without having to evaluate every situation. Reinforcement occurs (or has occurred) when a consequence follows a response, is associated with that response, and results in a strengthening of the response in frequency, intensity, or duration. In other words, reinforcement is what makes behaviors more likely to happen again.

This seems more sensible and interpretable when you observe people working for "rewards" and forming adaptive habits based on getting something desirable for their efforts. Of course this happens regularly, especially in regard to sanguine relationships and functional habits. But it is only part of the big picture of reinforcement. Just as gravity, fire, friction, and other natural forces can work for you or against you, so can reinforcement. It is an equal opportunity, non-discriminating force-meaning that reinforcement strengthens undesirable behaviors as well as desirable ones.

It is problematic that reinforcement strengthens undesirable behaviors, too, often in a manner that seems counterintuitive. Classic examples of this are the many ways that people get attention by misbehaving. The psychological insight that they are misbehaving to gain attention may or may not be true. What is clearly the case is that misbehavior in its many forms (defiance, aggression, avoidance, forgetfulness, etc.) does get negative attention, whether it is purposeful, conscious, or inadvertent. The result is the same: an undesirable behavior becomes stronger and more probable.

Thus, a vicious cycle of reinforcement becomes a trap ensnaring people in faulty behavior, rapid and critical censure of the behavior, and a relentless strengthening of the probability that more of the same will occur. For example, a child misbehaves (talks disrespectfully, refuses or ignores directions), the parent nags or yells (because "if I don't stay on top of him, nothing gets done!"), the child seems to respond ("Okay, okay," and may hurry to comply at that time), everyone is frustrated, and the cycle repeats itself over and over again. What is actually happening through this repetition is that the child is reinforcing the parent's tendency to remind and yell, and the parent is reinforcing the child's habit of waiting to be reminded or yelled at as a cue to perform.

It is a pattern that most people find familiar and frustrating. Let's invoke a practical and simple method to escape this trap: don't ask, don't yell-just task and tell.

1. Don't ask

In the face of bad behavior, typically repeated despite many warnings and "consequences," a natural response is to confront the offender with questions about why he did or didn't do something. When Johnny has yet again made a mess, failed to do or turn in his work, disrespected someone, or dawdled in his own world while you wait for him to comply, your frustration and impatience compound, your nervous system accelerates, and you try to cool yourself and modulate your temper by asking confronting questions:

"Why didn't you do your homework?"

"Why did you hit your sister? Don't you know that's wrong?"

"How can you live in such a messy room?"

"Didn't you hear me tell you to stop playing on the computer?"

Although such questions seem instinctive and appropriate to the child's defiance or noncompliance, they are actually rather foolish questions. No offense meant, reader, we all err this way; but they are, indeed, inappropriate questions that almost always lead away from the result you want.

Think about this: what is the child supposed to say to this third-degree interrogation? He resorted to his usual behavior that displeases you (not necessarily to displease you, but because of his habit of doing what he wants and his becoming used to having his actions heavily reinforced). You are confronting him and asking for a justification for behavior you have already judged unjustifiable! When pressed for an answer, the child will look for a way to escape the spotlight and pressure. Answers like "I forgot," or "Sorry" will likely vex you further and heighten the inquisition.

"What do you mean, you forgot? Haven't I told you a hundred times?" (Yes, of course you have!)

By questioning the child in this way-putting him in the spot with accusations dressed as questions-you're ensuring that he will give you answers that are unsatisfactory and even infuriating. However, the questions are setting the child up for more shame and anxiety. Unwittingly, parents can hammer this home even further by challenging the child's answers.

"Sorry? How can you say you're sorry when you've done this over and over again?"

"Am I supposed to accept your excuses?"

You're getting the point that such interactions devolve into more avoidance, frustration, lying to avoid censure, resentment, and reinforcement (despite its unpleasantness) that the scenario will happen again.

It's not what you want, but this is the usual result of asking people why they did something you don't like. They weren't thinking at the time what you would want them to think, they don't have answers that will satisfy you, and they just want to get away from the pressure.

Indeed, are there any satisfactory answers to the mindless questions you're asking as you vent your frustration? The questions are usually seething and inappropriate. Don't do it this way.

2. Don't yell

Yelling, nagging, and invective questioning form an unpleasant, yet forceful method of delivering reinforcement, or strengthening, of the very behaviors you are trying to discourage. As described earlier, yelling is not only stressful and ineffective, it backfires into repeating and fortifying the cycle. When you raise your voice or yell, you are reinforcing your own tendency to repeat, remind, and yell, and you are reinforcing the child's habit of waiting to be repeatedly reminded or yelled at as a cue to perform.

People generally don't yell because they are mean or blind to its deleterious effects. They do so because they are frustrated, triggered by the reinforcement "dance" of prior conditioning, excited emotionally, and aroused physiologically. Afterward, they justify their behavior with disclaimers that, despite downside of yelling, it's the only way to get compliance.

This, however, is far from true. Let's examine alternate effective ways of eliciting compliance, forming better habits, and reinforcing calmness and cooperative spirit.

3. Just task

What you say is important, as is the way you say it. The old adage, Say what you mean and mean what you say is relevant. When you want someone to do something, you must communicate that message in language that is simple, direct, clear, and unadorned by extraneous or conflicting messages. Unfortunately, many people unknowingly complicate and confuse their messages with criticisms and side comments that obfuscate the action to be taken.

We interpret and respond to messages with our conscious and subconscious minds. When the information is conflicting or ambiguous, we may ignore it or respond in ways that misinterpret the intention. And, the mind acutely processes the semantics of messages that help interpret and comply with what is said. Without taking this into account, we can subvert our objectives by delivering mixed or confusing messages that leave our audience unsure of what to do and unmotivated to follow through.

For example, when a child has failed to comply or follow through, parents (in utter frustration) may deliver a message such as, "How many times do I have to tell you? You're irresponsible, and you'll never get anywhere by this kind of forgetfulness. Now turn off the computer and do your homework before I give you a consequence you'll never forget!"

Think about the content of this message, as well as the emotional impact. "How many times do I have to tell you?" Is your child really supposed to answer that? If so, the answer would probably be, "Too many, just like you usually do." Calling him irresponsible and forgetful reinforces his negative self-image and reputation, and it does nothing to shape the adaptive response you want which is compliance and follow-through. Telling him to "turn off the computer and do your homework before I give you a consequence you'll never forget!" literally tells him that after he complies, you will deliver some unknown and awful punishment. The net effect is to intimidate the child into immediate and apparent submission. But this is not effective or enduring.

Instead, just task: state your request in simple language, unadorned with criticism or superfluous comments. For instance: "John, please quit any and all games and entertainment now. Begin your homework within 90 seconds. If you need to use the computer to do your homework, make sure that homework assignments are the only items on your screen or browser. I will check on you in two minutes to see that you are complying. Go ahead."

Simple, to the point, unfettered with emotion or side criticisms. This allows his mind to focus better.

Here's another example of an ineffective tirade: "I can't believe you forgot your materials again! Is this what you call maturity? I don't know what I'm gonna do with you. You seem to never learn. Now find out from the Internet (or friend) what your assignment is. You are so forgetful and irresponsible!"

Instead, just task with clear and simple directions: "You forgot your homework and materials. Okay, you still have to make efforts to find out what your homework is and to do as much of it as you can. Look on the school web page that shows your homework. Also, show me your last three assignments in this class. Name two students in your class who you think know the homework assignments. Write down their names. If you don't know their phone numbers, you're going to find them out the next school day and report their phone numbers to me, so you won't be stuck like this again. And, please e-mail your teacher and request a description of the due assignment. Show me when you've finished these items. I expect you to show me within 30 minutes."

Another example: Instead of, "Your room is a disaster. Clean it up," you might try it this way:

"I'm giving you 20 minutes to clean up your room. Please do the following: Pick up all clothes off the floor. No clothing is to be touching the floor except two pairs of shoes. Put dirty clothing into the laundry basket. Put your clean clothes on hooks or in drawers. Put items you are unsure of on your bed and we'll go through them when you have cleaned up everything else. All papers you need should be in folders or drawers. All other papers should be thrown away, including wrappers and left over items. When I inspect in 20 minutes, anything lying around where it's not supposed to be will be taken away."

Such instructions are explicit and communicate specific actions and standards. Tasking your child in this manner doesn't assure that he will follow through, but it does heighten the probability of compliance. Speaking directly and simply with specific parameters will enable your child to focus on what he needs to do, rather than on his previous failures and your disappointment in him.

As you practice this proactive direction, you will be more concise and clear, as well as less frustrated and nagging.

The next step after tasking is telling -that is, evaluating performance and reinforcing accountability.

4. And tell

Venting frustration, disappointment, and negative criticism is poisonous to your relationships and it is inimical to getting people to step up and improve their performance. An effective alternative (or, perhaps, antidote) is the habit of reinforcing accountability by describing outcomes and evaluating their adequacy in a timely and objective manner.

Specifically, get in the habit of responding to your child's performance or lack of it by simply reporting on the observations and facts. So, for example, if your child ignores your directions or has not followed through on responsibilities, state your observations as if you were a reporter or announcer.

"John, I told you to turn off the computer and begin your homework 20 minutes ago. I notice you are still playing games and have not started your homework."

"I told you that you could not play on the iPad for the rest of the day, and you are complaining and challenging my decision."

Instead, just task: state your request in simple language, unadorned with criticism or superfluous comments. For instance: "John, please quit any and all games and entertainment now. Begin your homework within 90 seconds. If you need to use the computer to do your homework, make sure that homework assignments are the only items on your screen or browser. I will check on you in two minutes to see that you are complying. Go ahead."

"When I asked you about your homework, you claimed that you don't have any today. Then, you told me you don't have the materials to study for the next test. I know from past experience that you get homework almost every day and that you should be planning and putting in study time five days a week in addition to assignments due the next day. So your answer is not appropriate to your responsibilities, and I'm holding you accountable for that."

"I notice again that when I ask you if you have completed your homework and prepared your backpack for school, you told me you will get to it. I didn't ask you about your intentions or plans. I asked you if you finished these tasks. Did you or did you not finish them?" (Pause) "I take that as ‘No, I've not done what I was supposed to do and agreed to do.'"

"When I ask you to stop jumping around and to finish your meal, you say, ‘Okay, okay!' However, you continue to get up from the table and run around instead of eating your food."

This objectivity will focus both you and your child on the reality of his accomplishment or lack thereof instead of becoming sidetracked and emotional about the habitual poor performance. It is not, by itself, a complete modification of the desired behavior; but it is a proper component of focus and direction, and it will steer you away from the nagging and complaining that typically substitutes for evaluation of performance and re-assignment of the task.

Your discrete commentaries on what actually happens may also include your feelings and a challenge to your child. However, you must be careful to present your experience as a time-bound event and not as a piling on of disparagement about your child's abilities and character.

For example, you could say, "When you ignore my directions or answer me in that way, I think and feel several things: I feel frustrated and disrespected, and I am tempted to criticize you and be disappointed in you. This is about my reaction, not about your behavior. So I have a problem, and I'd like your opinion. Do you think my feelings about your lack of follow-through are out of line? If you were me, what would you do in this situation?"

Your child will be very surprised by this approach and may not have much or anything useful to say. However, it will get him to think because this approach is solicitous and nonthreatening. Also, it is a good way to communicate that you have uncertainties and sensitivities and that you are open to his feelings and point of view.

The task-and-tell strategy is a reliable and productive habit that you can practice to describe and focus upon what did or didn't get done, how you think and feel about it, and to highlight your child's excuses and avoidance behaviors-all without yelling, nagging, disparaging, or becoming so emotionally reactive that you focus on the argument and frustration rather than the incomplete task.

Ultimately, there needs to be consequences for avoidance or unacceptable behavior that exert a corrective effect on motivation and follow-through. This is where task-and-tell can lead to administering response costs, which are impositions of what your child has to pay or do for his excuses, avoidance, or misbehavior.

Turn Excuses Into Work

Rather than argue with your child about his "reasons" or excuses, you can attach a cost to his habitual offering of such responses. Response costs are most effective when they are proximal to the offense-that is, administered quickly after the unacceptable behavior-and involve some palpable sacrifice. They are, in a sense, like parking tickets. The message is: I can't stop you from parking here when I'm not looking, but I can make you pay a price that will likely discourage you from doing this again.

Taking away possessions and privileges-a traditional strategy that parents use but often find ineffectual, especially with intransigent children-is less effective in curbing transgressions than attaching an immediate and unpleasant cost to such behaviors. Costs that the child must pay quickly and by some action tend to work much better than confiscating favorite possessions. If you take away his gaming privileges, he will resent you and passively acclimate. However, if you turn his excuses or misbehavior into an immediate labor requirement, that's a sacrifice that will make an impressionable and lasting impact.

You could impose a consequence for forgetfulness or disrespect that involves some menial work that you can monitor without much effort. "John, that excuse will cost you 10 minutes of washing the dishes. Begin now." (See, you are tasking.)

"But I didn't mean it. Besides, the dishes are clean."

"John, that's another excuse, which will cost you an additional 10 minutes of washing the dishes. You must now wash dishes for 20 minutes. I will find some dishes for you to re-wash. Every time you make a complaint or excuse or stop washing for more than 60 seconds, it will cost you another 10 minutes of washing."

Tasking and telling can become a productive habit and save you effort and aggravation. Turn your complainant's excuses into work by attaching response costs. You can invent many different effective costs. The idea is to be immediate and reinforce the association between the misbehavior and the mandated payment. It's not mean, it's just fair-according to the rules you institute.

Instead of following the ingrained but unproductive habit of mindlessly ranting and reminding, practice the strategies described above to restore calmness, control, and productive outcomes to your relationships and the accountability of those around you.

Don't ask, don't yell-just task and tell.