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What They Say vs. What They Do

The other day, I heard an advice columnist tell this story…

In his line of work, he is often in the position of telling people to break up with their partner. But what the columnist wants to add to his advice is, break up with the jerk but don’t tell the jerk that I told you to do that. He is worried that someday he will run into the jerk that got dumped who is then mad and possibly violent.

So, guess what happens?

He is walking down the street and a guy says, you don’t know me but you told my girlfriend to break up with me. This was it – the columnist was ready for this guy to deck him.

But instead the guy said, thank you! Guy had wanted the relationship to end but his girlfriend didn’t, so he went along while also acting like a jerk so she would break up with him.

If the girlfriend didn’t understand this then, I hope she does now: When someone’s words and actions don’t match, trust the actions.

Because actions reflect priorities.

Economists have a great term for this: revealed preference. Instead of relying on what people state as their preference, you look at the actual decisions they make. Because while they may say one thing, the choices they make reveal something else.

Often we hear someone’s words and take them as truth, even as all evidence points otherwise. Words seem clear and are easily interpreted to represent the speaker’s true position. The speaker may in fact be sincere and genuinely want what was said. Or perhaps the speaker feels compelled to say what’s expected, even if it’s not what they want.

But when it comes time to back up their words with action, their behavior will reveal their deeper truth. Like someone who says they want to lose weight – they really do! – but doesn’t make any lifestyle changes. Or like the guy who met the advice columnist, he stayed with his girlfriend but his behavior was begging for a break up.

When you are on the receiving end of this pattern – hearing one thing and seeing something else – it can be mighty confusing if you’re focusing just on the words. She said she wants this… so why hasn’t she done anything about it? And maybe you think, I’ll ask her about it again and offer some friendly advice and get her this book/class/helpful product. That will get her on track!

Instead, it gets you a boatload of her resentment for your nagging/pushing/micromanaging.

Instead of trying to force a change of behavior, ask yourself:

  • What does this person say?

  • How does this person behave?

  • Are their actions aligned with their stated position?

If words and actions are at odds, you know how to discern what their real preference is. It’s been revealed. Their actions are telling you loud and clear.

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