The Power of Suggestion

This article was in the January-February 2020 edition of BSA Advancement News. That issue is not available in the BSA’s online archive so I’m republishing it here. Emphasis is in the original.

The Power of Suggestion

We’ve all heard of the ‘power of suggestion’ and how it can influence our lives and the lives of those around us. If someone or something suggests to you a specific outcome, your expectations can play an important role in achieving that out-come. The reason for this is that the way we anticipate our response to a situation influences how we will actually respond.

In Scouting the ‘power of suggestion’ frequently manifests itself by leaders attempting to influence a Scout’s behavior, actions, advancement etc. by making a ‘suggestion.’ Typical examples include telling Scouts that it is ‘suggested’ they: (1) wear the full field uniform to a Scoutmaster conference; (2) type the Eagle Scout Rank Application; or (3) type the Scout’s statement of ambition and life purpose a certain length. For Eagle Scout service projects, some leaders have ‘suggested’ Scouts should work toward a certain typical standard stating for example that 100 hours is typical of what is needed to show sufficient leadership to successfully complete an Eagle Scout service project. However, Scouts will frequently interpret a ‘suggestion’ as an indirect instruction that they must comply with rather than just an alternative they might consider.

Guide to Advancement, Section states “Councils, districts, and units shall not establish requirements for the number of people led, or their makeup, or for time worked on a project.”

Leaders may defend these practices by saying that they were merely ‘making a suggestion’ and not establishing a minimum standard. But what was their real intent? Obviously, it was an attempt to influence the Scout’s behavior and actions in a specific way. In reality the above examples are nothing more than an attempt to set additional minimum standards beyond those necessary for rank advancement. This is just an indirect way of adding to requirements, which is not allowed.

From the Scouts’ perspective, the problem with such “suggestions,” however well-meaning, is that Scouts will frequently interpret a suggestion from an adult as an indirect instruction that they must comply with rather than just an alternative they might consider.

To better understand this let’s look at the context of how a ‘suggestion’ is given. When someone in a position of authority, such as a parent, unit leader, employer, or other professional makes a ‘suggestion’ more than likely they are expressing their expectation of a certain outcome. For example,

  1. If a doctor suggests that a patient stop a certain behavior, is the doctor really making a ‘suggestion,’ or are they telling the patient the outcome the doctor expects?
  2. If a teacher suggests that students study certain topics overnight, is that a ‘suggestion’ or a warning about a potential pop quiz the next day?
  3. If an employer suggests that you do something, is that really a ‘suggestion’ or an indirect way of telling you do something? If an employer suggests that an employee might want to get a report done before going home today instead of waiting until tomorrow what would the expectation of that employee?
  4. If a parent suggests that one of their children clean up their room, make their bed, take out the garbage, etc., are they really making a ‘suggestion’ that the child doesn’t need to follow?
  5. If the Scoutmaster ‘suggests’ that that a Scout do a certain something is that a ‘suggestion’ or is the Scoutmaster communicating an expected performance standard?

The examples above should make it clear that when someone in a position of authority makes a ‘suggestion’ that in reality they are communicating a performance expectation. Likewise, in Scouting, when adult leaders make ‘suggestions’ to Scouts, they will undoubtedly interpret those ‘suggestions’ as instructions that they must comply with. Don’t fall in the trap of creating additional requirements and expectations that are not permitted or allowed by calling them “suggestions.” Praising positive actions is a much better approach and ultimately one that should be much more successful in achieving the desired outcome.

I have uploaded this full issue here: The article is on pages 6 and 7. The issue should be in the Advancement News archive, but it is not in the list and even creating the expected URL by hand doesn’t find a PDF. They changed the filename format between the previous and next issue; I’ve tried both formats. If they ever upload it and fix the archive, I’ll link to it. My copy is from my email subscription to the newsletter.


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