Seeing the best in life's challenges

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

on February 29, 2012

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell isn’t just a former military policy.  I would argue that more people than we’d like to think, live their lives according to this mindset.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a great description of what I call denial-based reality.

Here’s a really simple, universal example:  When you greet someone, and say, “Hi, how are you?” are you likely to get an honest answer?  Mostly, you will get, “Fine, how are you?” despite the fact that the other person may or may not have major or minor issues that they are dealing with.  It’s not REALLY asking and it’s not REALLY telling.  It’s how our society runs so much of the time, on the surface.

Realistically, some of this is necessary.  If we tried to deal with all the problems that there are out there, all at once, it could be really overwhelming.  There is an unspoken agreement not to dump all of our problems on others, without having really been asked.

Moving beyond Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a gradual process.  It’s a change in mindset that I believe is a positive step, and it’s not as hard as you think.   But we have to be aware of the dynamics of our communications with others.

So, when do we really ask?  How often?  How many times are we aware that a friend seems a little “off”, yet we don’t “go there”?  Why?

Part of the answer is probably that people aren’t used to being asked.  When is the last time someone actually asked about you, with the intent to really listen and understand, without judging?


Found this later:



We don’t feel safe telling, opening up, or being authentic, so we are afraid to tell.

Too often, if we start to open up, the other person isn’t really listening – rather, they are busy forming an opinion about what we “should” do.  Then, instead of being heard, we feel judged…..and we shut down.  If we have a lot of experience with Askers who have an agenda, we will be defensive, which will prevent us from really telling.  Sometimes, it is our own self-judgment, guilt and shame, that prevents us from opening up.

Honest communication has to have both sides – sincere asking and honest telling.

I believe that people WANT to be authentic.  Deep down, we all desperately want to be understood.  But we are so used to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell game, that breaking out of it is scary and uncomfortable.

Truly authentic communication requires us to develop some level of relationship with the person we are interacting with.  We can’t just spew all of our problems at someone. We have probably all met at least one person who is an expert Teller –someone who will tell you way more than you want to know, who doesn’t have a clue, that is really just dumping on you.  Their inability to also be an Asker/Listener precludes a healthy dynamic.

We have to be able to play both parts – Asker and Teller – to gain a level of trust and understanding, to be truly heard and to truly listen.  It’s a two-way street.

The Asker has to have the intent to listen, and the Teller has to be authentic and honest with the answers.  This is a dynamic that is very different from the norm.

So, for my part, I can strive to care enough about others to ask them real questions and listen to them without judging.  I can create an environment that lets them feel safe in sharing their thoughts, questions, and insecurities.  I don’t need to tell them what to do, or decide what the answer should be.  I can practice being a good listener.

On the other side, I need to be willing to take a chance and be authentic when someone asks me a question.  Sometimes this backfires, when the Asker isn’t really interested in your answer or isn’t really listening.  But you can start out slow, and you can tell pretty quickly whether you have an opportunity to really share or not.

What I have found, though, is that if you can be a good questioner and listener, it is very easy to have this kind of deeper conversation with others.  It’s a very natural way of being – as soon as the fear is gone, we all know what to do.  We just have to feel safe, both asking and telling.

Each of us can work on being a better asker and listener, a little at a time.  And each of us can strive to share our authentic selves when asked, again, a little at a time.  It’s a process.

What do you think?

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