Asking and Telling

I want you to think about all the times someone has asked you to do them a favour when they were really trying to tell you to do something. At work, at school, at home, it happens all over the place. Can you think of a time when you’ve done it? I know I can think of times when I have, and I think it comes from a misunderstanding of the essential differences between asking and telling. Often, it seems like we ask when we should tell, or tell when we could ask. The two methods often seek to accomplish the same thing, but can have methods (and results) that differ radically. I think this is because of the way that we use them. But first, what’s the real difference between asking and telling?


Asking is just that, a request, and by definition leaves an opening for someone to decline. Whether proposing marriage or requesting the salt at the dinner table, there’s always at least two options when we ask someone to do something. Having a choice means that there’s less pressure for the person being asked, because it puts them in control. This can create pressure for the person asking, because it means giving up some of their control. But this isn’t control they ever had in the first place.


When we tell someone to do something, we’re giving them an order which we expect to be obeyed, and usually some kind of consequence is implied. The thing with telling is that it removes choice, and necessarily involves not entirely respecting someone’s autonomy. They don’t get to choose whether or not to do it, we do. However, there are certainly situations in which telling is a legitimate and appropriate action. In situations of great urgency, for example. If a child is drowning, we might order someone to save them if they can get there before we can, rather than asking them and letting them decide. Another situation where telling would be advisable is in cases of mutually recognized authority. When an employer sets a deadline or gives an order, we can certainly negotiate, but when it comes down to it, we’ve given them authority over us in certain settings and circumstances, and thus given them permission to tell us to do things. However, outside of situations like the two examples, we see plenty of telling going on, and it works. The issue is that it only works so many times. Everybody’s got their limit, and when it’s reached, that’s it. Being told all the time can frustrate us, because it sidelines our interests.


With these definitions, I think it’s clear why confusing or misusing the two can have bad results. I recall an employer asking me if I could pick up some overtime. Having plans, I declined, because they had asked instead of instructed. My manager was upset, because she had meant it as an order, but it wasn’t within her power to give that order. Similarly, imagine if your friends told you to do things instead of asking you. It’s fine now and again, sometimes I need to get dragged out of my house to see other humans, but if it happened continually, how would it feel?

I think the other really important thing about asking and telling is the idea that we can’t go back from telling. If we tell somebody to do something, we can’t then ask them. We can’t take their choice away, and then give it back, because it’s not a meaningful choice then. We were already prepared to remove it. So while we can escalate from asking to telling, there’s no going back from telling. Telling someone and then asking them is making an offer they can’t refuse, Marlon Brando style, and that creates the exact same kind of pressure.

So What?

These aren’t the only means of getting people to do things that we want them to. We could force them, either physically or by exerting leverage, or convince them, by using sound reasons or rhetoric. We can petition others to implement one of these on our behalf (as seen in government or the fifth grade). But I think asking and telling seem to be the most often conflated, and I feel like we often do so without understanding the consequences it can have on our relationships. If we value people and our relationships with them, then we might want to value their autonomy over their ability to do what we say, and for the most part I think we do. In any instance we can ask or tell, but I feel like it’s important to be aware of which one we’re doing, and which one we’re better off doing. What do you think? Is it just me? What experiences have you had with this? As always, I await your comments.


  1. Thank you so much for bringing this subject up. I’ve been trying to explain the difference between asking and telling to my boyfriend, who refuses to hear me out. He claims that he doesn’t understand why I would rather be asked to do something than told. When he tells me to do something for him or with him, it’s like he’s controlling me and it really brings me down. When he asked me for favors in the beginning of our relationship, I was so willing to do things for him. But when he stopped asking and repeatedly started telling me to do things, I became frustrated and didn’t want to do anything for him. I just wish he would understand where I’m coming from.

  2. Thank you. This is exactly how I viewed the differences between asking and telling. Unfortunately there are many who for some reason or another missed the lessons on kindness, gratitude, etc. I have been my sister in laws caregiver for almost 3 years now and never once has she ever “asked.” It has always been an order. Plus never once has she ever said thanks. It has begun to make me less compassionate and I don’t like being that way.

  3. This is great. Since learning Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in psych class I have become very conscious of how lack of mutual respect can have a negative effect on a person. I see some of the cause of not starting a sentence with “Could you”/”Can you” because we have so many distractions/rush/lack of good role models/ect. in our society. Surely a person’s tone can impact this but I see no reason why we should not ask. The bottom line is that when a person does not feel respected, their self-esteem, confidence, achievement, ect goes down. If employers understood these things, I think they would promote such. The same with friends and family members. The sad truth is that many people have only control, manipulation, and getting what is best for themselves.

  4. Offered to take care of my boss’s dogs (2) while she traveled out of town for a week, as she could not find someone to assist. I live 1 block from her house and she has this expectation that I will stay at her house and take a shower there also. To me that is just creepy. Upon showing up the first morning to let the dogs out I find a note attached to the refrigerator that stated; “Black can to curb Sunday night. Pink can to curb Weds night.” I consider this very disrespectful in that, I offered to take care of the dogs, and nothing more. Additionally it then turned into picking up her mail, and covering for another person who could not care for the dogs during my work shift. This is not only a lack of consideration for my time and things I need to take care, but someone that is and has taken advantage of a situation. It will be the last time I offer and/or watch her dogs again.

    • How did you tell her that you weren’t offering you take care of her dogs? I’m in a similar situation.

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  6. sorry, while you get to the kernel of truth, all of the verbiage around it, imho, doesn’t really matter.

    It is really about the consequences I really don’t care if the Brando’s “godfather” asked me using non-demanding language or not…the “offer” you can’t refuse still is a demand that if you don’t comply, expect at the least a beloved horse’s head in your bed.

    If I have a demanding wife that makes life miserable if she doesn’t get her way she can “suggest” things all day long and I know the misery that will ensure if the “suggestion” isn’t accepted.

    Interestingly, her demands that I consider the language that I use really go back to her incessant need to control the situation and don’t dare question the status quo.

    • When someone uses the kinder language consistently, they tend to be more thoughtful across the board and that will be evident over time.

      If one asks, I exercise my right to say “no” and they flip, it would probably be a healthy ….and a natural progression/regression to not get to a level of “spouse/significant other” with them.

      Back to the more thoughtful person that uses the asking verbiage regularly because they DO care. They will not only respect autonomous “no’s”, but likely engage on why’s, motivations, listen, respond caringly, etc. Share their intent, hopes, etc, and in doing so, naturally and consistently create a stronger secure foundation and bond. And the person they consistently do this with is likely to want to please/partner/comrade with them and often feel truly, naturally, happily set to say “yes/insert topic knowing their freedom to deviate would also be respected. (And if not, back to naturally leaning away/distancing/not becoming close).

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