Be Descriptive, Not Prescriptive

Have you ever noticed how most people are prescriptive when they ask you to do something? Whether it’d be a colleague or a boss at work, or a friend, or a parent – not enough people ask for help in a descriptive way – they rather give you the exact steps they want you to follow in order to achieve their intended goal.

It is so deeply ingrained in our society, even most religions are like that – at least the three major Mesopotamian ones: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are full of “do this” and “don’t do this”. This is in stark contrast with some other religions – like for example Zoroastrianism, which only says “think well, speak well and act well” – and leaves the interpretation for how to do that to the individual. It’s a bit like saying “do to others what you would like them to do to you” – which would result in very different outcomes for different people and cultures.

Many aspects of government are like that too – take as an example the “sentencing guidelines” for judges.

In a way, being prescriptive is an insult to human intelligence – or to any intelligence, really. It assumes that the people who are being given the directions would never be able to get there by themselves. In a lot of ways it assumes that most humans are on an inevitable and permanent path of self-destruction. It is interesting that we developed such behavior in the first place – when none of the natural processes surrounding us, including some which led us to where we are, have prescriptive behavior built in.

Perhaps more importantly, such behavior stands in the way of innovation and somewhat consistent behavior in crowds, companies, religions, and citizenry.

The next time you ask someone for help – try describing what end goals you have in mind and let that person come up with a path for how to get there. Try it when asking a child to do something. Try it by by being honest in your communications with customers and employees. Then see what happens…

Published Friday, 26 Aug. 2011. 00:08

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