How to Bring Out the Best in Others – By Marta Hiatt

How to Bring Out the Best in Others – By Marta Hiatt

Fran’s husband had a habit of tossing his dirty socks into the laundry basket, but frequently missing by a few inches and having them land on the floor, where they would usually stay. It really frustrated Fran when she had to pick up his clothing and place it in the basket, even though she’d mentioned this problem to Tom several times. After learning the techniques of behavior modification, Fran decided to stop nagging her husband and try positive reinforcement. When he missed the basket, she said nothing and quietly picked up his socks. But, on days when his socks actually landed in the target, she quickly reinforced the appropriate behavior by saying: “I really like it when you put your socks right inside the basket.” She followed this statement with a hug. Within a week Tom was hitting the target every time, or picking up the socks by hand and placing them inside the basket whenever he missed, and an argument was avoided.

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE We’ve all heard the old adage “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and this is the principle behind behavior modification. Nagging someone to do something, whether it’s a partner or child, often elicits just the opposite response: resistance, but almost everyone responds to positive reinforcement, but this approach to changing someone’s behavior takes a little patience and emotional control. Practitioners of behavior modification believe habits are learned because of reinforcement from the environment. This theory states that people will always do the behavior that earns the greatest rewards, even if, in the doing, there are some adverse effects. For instance, Tom may have learned from his mother that it really didn’t matter whether his socks landed in the basket or not because she’d come along and pick them up for him. That was his reward but, because he only got negative messages from Fran for the same behavior he didn’t have much motivation to “unlearn” it.

WHAT A SWEET CHILD! When dealing with a child, attention is one of the most important rewards, even if it’s negative attention; a child would rather be punished than have no attention at all, because it signifies they have an effect on the parent. If a child acts inappropriately, and then receives immediate attention for that behavior, it will tend to be repeated. If Johnny throws a temper tantrum in the supermarket and mom, desperate to have him quiet down, quickly purchases what he wants, his inappropriate behavior has now been rewarded, and will likely be repeated the next time. Mom has actually “taught” Johnny that throwing a tantrum pays off, and she can be certain he won’t quickly forget that lesson. When little Mary walks into a room full of people and shyly refuses to say hello or state her name, shyness can become a permanent part of her personality if that behavior is constantly reinforced. If her parents or the company present comment on “how cute that is,” and give her plenty of attention for her nonverbal behavior, she’s learning that noncommunication is desirable. Besides attention, children will also respond to other types of reinforcers, such as tokens they can accumulate to buy something they really want, or even stars on a calendar which can be traded for a trip to the zoo, or some other activity the child really desires. Or a food treat can be given contingent upon the child finishing his or her homework. But, material rewards should always be paired with social reinforcers, such as praise, a smile, a hug or a pat on the shoulder, so the child doesn’t become hooked to always being paid for doing what’s required.

NAG! NAG! NAG! Like children, adults also respond to positive reinforcement but, unfortunately, couples who live together tend to slip into a pattern of nagging or even denigrating their partner to get what they want, and frequently inadvertently reward the very behavior they don’t want. For instance, if you’d like to go out to dinner at least once a week, the negative approach is to say something like: “We never seem to go any place nice for dinner anymore.” A more positive statement, such as “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we went out for a quiet dinner and had some time alone, once a week?” is likely to elicit an affirmative response.

BATHROOM BEHAVIOR How about the frustrating habit of the man in the house leaving the toilet seat up, and then you almost fall into it if you forget to look before sitting down? You may have nagged him repeatedly about this, and still he hasn’t remembered, and you’re getting increasingly ticked-off. Try to have the patience to wait until you catch him doing the desired behavior and then really praise him remembering! It won’t take long before he remembers all or most of the time.

WANT MORE ROMANCE IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP? Instead of statements like: “We don’t make love often enough,” “I need more affection!” or “When are you going to be in the mood?” which are sure to elicit a negative feeling in your partner, and definitely won’t get you what you want, try positive reinforcement, such as: “I love it when you’re affectionate with me,” or, more specifically: “I love it when you do X,” or “It makes me feel closer to you whenever we make love.”

REINFORCING THE BOSS Suppose your boss is the type of person who never notices how much work you have to do, but is always handing you even more, so that you feel overwhelmed. You don’t want to complain because you’re afraid he’ll think you’re not conscientious or hard-working. How to handle this positively? Whenever a day goes by that he doesn’t give you more work, take advantage of this by telling him you appreciate having a break to catch up on everything you have to do, because this makes you more efficient. By praising him for doing something he wasn’t even aware of, he’ll probably be more sensitive to this in future.

THE NEIGHBORS’ DOG WON’T STOP BARKING When you’ve been kept awake for several nights because of the neighbor’s dog, the temptation is to stomp over to their house and give them a piece of your mind. Resist doing this because it may cause your neighbors to dig in their heels and refuse to do anything about it. The best approach is to start off with anything you can think of that’s positive, such as how nice their front yard looks. Or, tell them how much you’ve appreciated that, except for the last few nights, their dog has been quiet. Let them know they’re good neighbors and you’d really like it if they could keep their dog in the house overnight so you can get a good night’s sleep. Of course there are some people who are so malevolent nothing will work, but it’s sure worth a try, whereas confronting them with a hostile attitude probably won’t get you what you want, but it will get you a bad relationship with your neighbors.

MAKING IT A HABIT Positive reinforcement can be used with anyone, for any behavior, because all of us resist criticism and respond to praise. So, the next time you want someone to accede to your wishes, try a little applause for the desired behavior.

About the Author: Marta Hiatt, Ph.D., is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist who holds a doctoral degree in Psychology and had a private practice in San Jose, California for 25 years. She is the author of “Memories of Times Past,” “Inspirational Quotations From the Concept-Therapy Philosophy,” and “Mind Magic, Techniques for Transforming Your Life” which has been translated into 50 languages and sold over 21,000 copies. Dr. Hiatt is also an experienced public speaker. Go here to learn more –>

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