Reality Check: If I Know What’s Right for You…

Do you know what’s right for someone else? It’s easy to think that we know exactly what someone should do, think, or feel. And then, it’s easy to tell them!

Dr. William Glasser associates the “I-know-what’s-right-for-you” perspective with misery. In his book, “Choice Theory,” he says “…people feel obligated to try to force us to do what they know is right. Our choice of how we resist that force is, by far, the greatest source of human misery.”


The actions we take to try to get people to do what we want them to do are referred to as “external control” by Glasser. What types of actions are those? Criticizing and nagging are two well-used behaviours. If we want good, satisfying relationships, then he suggests that we stop trying to control others.

Makes sense! But it can be hard to hold one’s tongue when you see someone you care about acting in ways that you know are not in their own best interests. Must you let them fumble around on their own, without your helpful guidance?

No, not at all. In fact, Glasser suggests that what we can do for other people is offer information. Just realize that the person receiving the information will do with it as they choose.

Sally has come up with the idea that she could afford a much nicer place if she invites her on-again off-again friend Cindy to be a roommate. As a caring adult in Sally’s life, you see the possibility that this arrangement will result in hard feelings, lost money, tears, and drama. What to do?

If you use an external control approach, such as criticism: “You’re making a stupid decision!” Sally probably won’t change her mind, and it definitely won’t help your relationship, either.

Instead of criticism, you could try one of these three approaches. They simply offer information to Sally that may not have occurred to her.

  1. Offer reflection: Reflect to Sally what she already knows but may have forgotten. For example, “Sally, you’ve told me that Cindy is an unpredictable friend who is only there when she needs you. You’ve also said she is messy, extravagant and doesn’t pay her bills.”
  2. Offer observations: For example, “What I’ve observed is that you like to live in a calm, orderly, tidy place without drama or chaos. Do you see any possibility for conflict?”
  3. Offer experience: For example, “My experience has been that roommate arrangements work most effectively if both people agree on ground-rules at the start, such as how to keep the apartment clean, how to ensure that the rent is paid, and how to handle guests.”

All we can do is offer information. We don’t have control over how the recipient receives it. They might agree and act on it, they might ignore it, or they may do the exact opposite. That’s their responsibility.

Either way, you can choose to avoid saying, “I told you so” should your apprehensions come true.

When there’s no controlling agenda behind it, an offer of information can be truly generous. How do you offer information? How is it received?

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