Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Communication

26 Jan

I first noticed prescriptive and descriptive styles of communication in observing parenting styles. Both types of communication are necessary in certain contexts. In terms of persuasion however, I have found the descriptive style to have a lot more appeal.

Here are a few examples of these types of communication in different contexts.


Prescriptive – If you follow my 31-point system, you cannot fail. (Micro-manager)

Descriptive – Here are some of the things that worked for me and contributed to my success…


Prescriptive – The first Homo sapiens evolved between 400,000 – 250,000 years ago. (Authority figure/Doctrinal)

Descriptive – These are some of the things I know about the theories of evolution and intelligent design…

Teaching # 2

Prescriptive – Religion is oppressive! (Opinion taught as fact)

Descriptive – I will give you some of the tenets of the major religions and belief systems of the world, but I encourage you to look into these topics for yourself.


Prescriptive – Eat your broccoli!

Descriptive – I hope that you will eat your broccoli. (Emotional appeal)

Parenting # 2

Prescriptive – None of my kids had better use drugs! (Veiled threat)

Descriptive – These are some of the effects of a person’s brain on meth…

Religious Instruction

Prescriptive – The Pharisees placed burdens on others as authority figures (Matthew 23:1-9)

Descriptive – Jesus used parables and quoted scripture (The temptation of Jesus “It is written” – Luke 4:1-13)

Witnessing or Preaching

Prescriptive – You need Jesus!

Descriptive – I need Jesus.

There is a time and a place for both prescriptive and descriptive communication. Prescriptive communication is often used with young children, as in “Don’t touch the stove!”; “Eat your fruit”; “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you won’t get to have dessert”; and “Don’t run into the street!” Although we would probably never need to tell our teenager not to run into the street, it is possible a similar issue could come up if our teen was a daring skate-boarder. So prescriptive communication can work well with young children, especially when it is balanced a lot of affection, which typically would be the case.

Another good use of prescriptive communication is in times of stress. Boot camp or military training, for example. In these cases people should and must be prepared to take orders. War would not be a time for Socratic dialogue. If there was a woman and her young child trapped in a burning upstairs apartment, the firefighters might tell her: “Mrs. Jones, drop Timmy into our net. Good. Now you jump.” In these cases, prescriptive communication inspires confidence, not doubt. The person taking authority has transferred responsibility for the outcome onto himself or herself.

There are other times however, when descriptive communication has the edge. If you have studied psychology, you may have learned that there is a huge difference between being authoritative and authoritarian. If you don’t let your kids – especially the older ones – make any decisions for themselves, they will never have an accurate grasp of cause and effect outside of the fear of authority. Under an authoritarian regime one does not develop the confidence to make decisions for himself.  Beliefs will tend be shallow if they are only based on what an authoritarian figure says, and not on one’s own examination and reasoning. Prescriptive teaching can also create confusion, especially if you have been taught the opposite before. You won’t know who to believe or to trust. But if you are trained to reason, research and evaluate the facts and implications on your own, then you will not be swayed easily back and forth. You will be able to recognize flawed arguments, logical fallacies or deliberate deception.

Descriptive communication is also an effective way to build a warm relationship. Instead of an authority-obedience relationship, it is a relationship where discussion is possible. Knowledge and learning is emphasized, not dogmas and platitudes. Kids are naturally curious and full of questions, so attempting to answer their questions with a humble attitude is one of the best ways to build a good relationship with them. Descriptive communication is especially effective with kids.

Low-key descriptive communication might be an effective approach for wooing a rebellious teenager. Scientists and psychiatric experts have observed that the adolescent brain is incomplete, especially in the areas of making good decisions. As described in a 1999 US News and World report article, teens may lack the necessary “hardware” for having good judgment. Here is a link to the article in which the below quote is found.

“Until the prefrontal cortex has been pruned, most young teenagers don’t yet have all the brain power they need to make good judgments. Researchers suspect that the excess of synapses means the young adolescent mind can’t easily keep track of multiple thoughts, and it can’t gain instant access to critical memories and emotions that allow grown-ups to make judicious decisions.”

Teenagers may not remember all of the applicable warnings or advice that a parent has given on any situation or vice, but they will remember the kind of relationship that they have with their parents. If the relationship is tense and full of conflict, the child may go the opposite direction from the parents’ wishes. However if there is warmth and open communication, the child will remember that. The pull of the parent-child relationship alone may prevent poor decisions at that critical time of life. Psychologist and author James Dobson also seems to support this concept of stepping back when parenting older kids. This is quote from his book “Solid Answers”: “Older children desire to be friends with their parents instead of accepting their parents’ authority over them.”

Descriptive communication is also a logical tool for single parents – especially single mothers – to employ. Single mothers can sometimes use the controversial “passive” parenting to good effect. Since single parents are often more constrained in keeping track of their kids compared to two-parent homes, there is a break in the ability to have complete authority over them. Thus, authoritative parenting could be frustrating and ill-advised. Renowned neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson was raised along with his brother by a mother with only a 3rd grade education. She worked several jobs and had little time at home. She required certain things of her sons like reading and book reports, even though she herself could not read. Her high expectations of them inspired them to higher heights. She also developed a system in which her sons helped to make the family rules. By involving them in the process, they were much more likely to live by those rules. Her method of parenting involved giving up some of her power, but the results speak for themselves. Their family had challenges and things to overcome, but both of her sons became very successful. As a pioneering neurosurgeon, Dr. Carson has been an inspiring role model to many throughout his career. He is the author of several books, including his autobiography, “Gifted Hands”.

With thoughtfulness we can learn to communicate more appropriately and intelligently, in ways that establish respect, confidence and the importance of relationships.


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