Being human together. Showing up for what matters.


Influencing Behaviour – Getting Others to do What We Want

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Today I’m writing against a backdrop of recent conversations with people  who are all struggling in one way or another. One struggles with the behaviour of her tantrumming toddler; another with her imposing mother-in-law; a couple who are both stressed and somehow pull away from each other when they want to draw close… and that’s just within my social group. We are wired to be relational beings – and yet being in relationships with others comes with as much pain as it does joy.  We hurt because we love.

This is my third attempt at trying to write this post. I like to keep things simple – and this topic is far, far from that. I don’t want to promote something as easy when it’s really not. Psychologists spend years studying this stuff; behaviourism is its own entire scientific field; and I’m trying to write something meaningful in 1,000 words or less.

When I hear stories like the ones I’ve mentioned above, I’m struck by the similarities between them – and I wanted to look at some general principles we can explore to bring about meaningful change in the relationships that matter to us most.  But first, we need to drop something.  We can spend a lot of time on “he should’ve”, “she should’ve”, “if they only”, and “why can’t they just”… but most of us are also aware that ultimately, what the proverbial “they” do is outside of “our” control.

What if we drop our desire to be “right” – our claim that “they” are the ones who “need to change”?

We may actually be “right”, I don’t want to argue you on that, but so long as we’re focusing our attention there, “they” are STILL doing exactly what “they” have always done, and we have relinquished any power to change it. If we are willing to let go of the “I’m right” story, perhaps we could try something different.

So with the caveats above (this topic is complex, this article is not exhaustive), and with the recommendation to let go of the “I’m right” story, these are three guiding principles for influencing the behaviour of others:

  1. Look through the eyes of the other
  2. Choose actions that reflect your values, not your emotions
  3. Reinforce (reward) the behaviour you do want; don’t reinforce the behaviour you don’t want

The first two are so tightly linked, there’s no point considering them separately – yet there is a distinction between them which is why I have included them both. I covered perspective taking in my last post in relation to parenting. It’s a good first step to consider “What is it like to be on the receiving end of ME?” – but the next part is just as important “Is that how I value behaving in this relationship?”.  If I only consider the first part, I might conclude “I am scary and threatening – so they won’t dare cross me” – but if I then consider the second part, I may find a different way to shape MY behaviour that is more consistent with my values, and still doesn’t end up with me being “crossed”.

Being guided by these principles, we can do the following:

  •  Consider the context – is the other person tired, hungry, overwhelmed, feeling threatened, bored, lonely, frustrated, confused? Am I? Is there anything I can do to modify this context for them? Am I interrupting or missing something that is important to them (even if not to me)? Have I forgotten to get their attention?
  • Consider the prompts I’m providing – is what I’m wanting from them clear? Are my expectations reasonable, and are they defined? Does the other person have the skill set to do what I want them to do? (Does my husband know how to talk about “feelings”? Am I expecting my mother to mind read my request for babysitting? Is it reasonable to expect my child to complete that whole long list of instructions?)
  • Consider the function of the behaviour – is your toddler biting because he’s bored / wants your attention / hungry / fed up? Is your mother-in-law “imposing” as a way of showing she loves you and is worried about you? Has your husband gone silent to communicate he feels hurt / unappreciated / rejected by you? If we understand the function, we can then look for ways to help the other person use different behaviours to get that same need met more efficiently and appropriately.
  • Connect with the values we want to bring to the relationship – do I need to modify my tone of voice? Have I remembered my manners? (“my love, can you do the dishes” generally achieves more than “do the f*cking dishes, you lazy sh*t”) Am I being respectful / kind / caring / compassionate / loving [insert your own values] even if the other person isn’t (I don’t have to let their behaviour dictate mine), and even if I don’t feel like it?

When we are thinking about influencing behaviour of others – particularly that of children – many people jump straight to consequences.  However, often making changes in line with the guidelines above before the “undesired behaviour” occurs is all that is necessary to bring about change.  If it’s not – then we can include the third guiding principle: Reinforce the behaviour you do want; don’t reinforce the behaviour you don’t want.

By reinforce, I’m not talking star charts and chocolates. I’m talking about consequences for behaviour that make it more likely the behaviour will happen again. If my son says “Please can I have some milk”, the reinforcement is the immediate provision of a cup of milk (and probably descriptive praise whilst I’m explicitly teaching this skill).  If he tantrums in the shops for a lolly, I don’t give him the lolly.

This may sound simplistic.  Unfortunately it’s really not. Recently a mother I spoke with declared she was 100% consistent with using timeout for her son’s undesired behaviour. And she absolutely was. Here’s the problem though – the FUNCTION of his behaviour was to AVOID the request she was making of him – and so her consequence of timeout functioned as a REINFORCER for him. The result? The problem behaviour kept increasing rather than decreasing.

If the behaviour is not decreasing, that’s a really good indicator that either (a) they don’t have an alternative skill set to get their need met (“I know you don’t want me to do X… but I have no idea what else to do”), and/or (b) the behaviour is effective in getting the person  something they want.

More complex examples of reinforcement of unwanted behaviours:

  • The person who successfully uses guilt trips to get others to babysit / visit / loan money
  • The teenager who hates school and uses violence to get suspensions
  • The partner who knows that if s/he leaves the dishes / laundry / children long enough, the other partner will give in and do it instead

NOT rewarding bad behaviour in circumstances such as these can be really HARD – no question. But we have to be aware of the longer term consequences – any behaviour that is reinforced will increase. That’s the way we’re all wired.  So when we’re dealing with complex situations where it seems easier to reward undesired behaviour, it is even more important that we do what we can by those first guiding principles – taking perspective; and choosing actions based on values, not emotions.  I’ll write more on this particular situation soon.

Want to shape my blogging behaviour?  Leave me a comment below  – if you want more of this (or another) topic unpacked, let me know which bits you’re most curious about.

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  1. […] If you’re taking your kids somewhere, let them know what behaviour you expect of them (rather than the list of behaviours you don’t want), and when you see it happen, let them know you’ve noticed.  A typical spiel in our car goes like this: “I’m so excited that we’re doing ____ today; and what I really love is the way you two always use your manners and are so polite when we’re out and about.  I love the way you do good listening, and I feel so proud of you when I see you using your good sharing and play skills.  I’m looking forward to your usual exquisitely good behaviour whilst we’re out today.  It’s because of your usual excellent behaviour that we get to do things like this so often.”  Yep, I’m wordy 😉  – and there’s a follow-up in the car on the way home: “Kids, thanks so much for you awesome behaviour today – I noticed this, and this, and this.  I feel so proud of the way you did this, and I especially noticed you doing that even though it was difficult.  The behaviour you demonstrated today makes me want to plan more of these types of activities together.”  I’ve written more previously on this topic here. […]

  2. Feeling a bit stressed at the moment my gut reaction to this blog was: “Go away – I don’t want to think about how I have to change! It’s all too hard.” But I also know that some of my patterns of behavior repeatedly play out.- and repeatedly deliver the same results which causes me (and those close to me) more stress. My head understands this – my heart is less keen to embrace it.

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