The Secret to Changing Someone's Behavior

by Joseph Kwon in


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Have you ever been frustrated by someone who won't take your advice? You've tried all manner of persuasion, bribery, or coercion, but they resist. What they should do seems SO obvious. What is not obvious is why they are so reluctant or unwilling to take action. After repeated attempts you give up in frustration and perhaps a twinge of resentment. But, wait! All is not lost. The secret to changing someone's behavior lies in making a tiny change. This shift does not come naturally to most of us (or we would have made it already), but once we master it, the results seem magical. Allow me to explain.

A tiny change can have a huge impact on results.

Imagine you are really happy with your tennis forehand or golf swing and then your instructor suggests you tweak your grip ever so slightly. Pandemonium ensues, you feel like you've slid backwards and you find yourself having to resist going full John McEnroe. Or imagine a rocket launch where a bright engineer notices just in time that the programmed angle of flight is off by a single degree. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours could have gone up in smoke.

I personally experienced this effect when several years ago my niece, who was a young child at the time wanted to see what I looked like without my glasses. Her distressed response was something like, "Put them back on! PUT THEM BACK ON!"

A tiny shift in your orientation to a person can have a huge impact on how they move.

Many years ago I was practicing an Aikido technique that kept stalling at the same spot every time. Done properly, you spin the attacker around you. Picture twirling a lasso or the game tetherball -  where you are the pole and the attacker is the ball. No matter how hard I tried, there was a point where I would lose momentum and the person would slow down like molasses. After several failed attempts, I asked my instructor for help. He grasped my shoulders and re-positioned my body so that at the exact point I was stalling, instead of being a few inches in front of the attacker, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with them. The distance I shifted was tiny, but the impact was enormous. By adjusting my orientation with respect to the other person ever so slightly, there was now no loss of momentum and the attacker was easily moved along the desired path. Something clicked. It wasn't more power or speed that I needed, but rather a better understanding of how my orientation to the person affected how they moved.

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Moving from the physical to the interpersonal realm, when despite our best efforts, a person is not doing what we would expect them to do, the answer is not better logic or more persuasive tactics. The answer lies in the secret I mentioned earlier.

"So what is the secret to changing someone's behavior?"

A tiny shift in your behavior towards a person can have a huge impact on how they act.   

I came across a powerful illustration of this principle while reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. As the story goes, Dr. John Probasco, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine had recently heard Sheryl talk about how women are more reluctant to raise their hands. This resonated with him in terms of the differences in participation he experienced between his male and female students. He could have given his students sound advice about the importance of raising your hand and how it is a valuable part of the learning process. And then he could have gone ahead asking questions in the same way he had always done and hoped that the female doctors would respond accordingly. However, this is not what he did. He decided to do away with the old hand-raising system entirely. Instead, he started calling on male and female students evenly. He quickly realized the women knew the answers as well or even better than the men. In one day, he drastically increased female participation by making one small change to his behavior.

"But wait, Joe, why should I have to change? Shouldn't the person I'm trying to help understand the very sound advice I'm giving them? Haven't I done enough already?"

I was a psychology major, but I'm no psychologist. So I'm not going to attempt to diagnose the various reasons why people might not follow your excellent, well-intentioned advice. You have every right to feel unappreciated, exasperated, or upset. That being said, I ask, "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?"

If you want to be effective in changing someone's behavior, consider what tiny changes you can make with respect to your behavior towards that person that can influence them to change. Could you ask questions instead of making suggestions? Consider the timing of when you bring it up. Might you take a more/less active role in their first steps? Have you considered using an agent to deliver your message? The precise tactic is not important. What is important is being aware of how your behavior will influence their actions. While this may sound like a lot of extra work, I like to think of it less as a burden and more as a skill to hone of discovering how to inspire people to act. Done correctly, like the small shift in my positioning during a stalled Aikido technique, the impact is surprising, immediate and seems almost magical.

 

Try it out and I would love to hear about your experiences in this regard - past, present or future!

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.

P.S.
This isn't the exact technique I was working on, but it illustrates a similar spiral movement.