I’ve noticed when feedback such as, “Stop doing this….” or “Please refrain from….” that we ASSUME our message is clear and will correct the problem at hand. However, that assumption may lead to confusion and mutual frustration. Instead, we need to specifically explain in terms of what we want them to do (rather than in terms of what we want them not to do).

A few years ago, we took our autistic son, age 15, to do an initial consultation with an orthodontist. As the orthodontist attempted to examine my son’s mouth, I noticed the doctor grew increasingly frustrated as my son clamped his mouth shut, and only revealed his teeth through his lips.

The doctor, trying to work with my son, repeatedly directed him, “Don’t close your mouth. Don’t close your mouth. Don’t close your mouth.” Despite this directive, my son continued to keep his lips open to reveal his teeth, but did not open his whole mouth. Seeing this quickly rise to a level of frustration, I pulled the doctor aside and offered him feedback to help him be more effective with my “literal-thinker” of a son.

I advised him to say, “Open up your entire mouth, and then keep your mouth open so I can look inside.” The doctor initially replied, “That’s what I’ve been asking him to do!”

I clarified, “No, you were directing him to not close his mouth – and assumed that he would intuitively know what you wanted him to do. When you tell him to not do something, you assume he understands what you want him to do instead – but this is not the case with my son.

If you simply tell him exactly what you want him to do, I can promise you that he will happily comply. He wants to be successful. He wants you to be proud of him. He wants to help. He’s just not clear what your directions mean.”

The “lightbulb” seemingly appeared over the doctor’s head, and when we went back into the room, I noticed the doctor smiled and said to my son, “I need you to open your entire mouth so I can look in there, and just keep it open while I look in there.” My son smiled and opened up wide; which made the experience mutually successful.

Give people the benefit of the doubt; that if they know clearly what you want them to do that they will be more receptive of the feedback that leads them to being successful.

Interested in updating the way you give feedback?