Don’t Stop Believin’ by the 80s rock band Journey is one of the best-known songs of all time. It’s not that the song is musically distinct, it’s because the lyrics are easy to remember and it’s encouraging when everything seems to be going against you. Misuse “don’t” and you might hinder your ability to influence people.
“Don’t” is an interesting word. I think about amateur golfers who come up to a hole with water. When I ask them what they think about as they get ready to play the hole it’s almost always, “Don’t go in the water.” And where do they end up all too often? In the water! Why would that happen when they’re so focused on not ending up in there? Let’s take a quick look at your brain to answer the question.
Your brain is like the engine of your car. The engine is what makes your car go. I bet you know how to drive but probably have very little knowledge about how the engine actually works. The same could be said of your brain. It’s your engine, driving your behavior, but if you’re like most people you probably don’t understand much about how your brain functions even though you use it every day.
Here’s some insight – your brain does not focus on the “don’t” but it does focus on the object that follows. There was a classic episode in the television show Frasier that perfectly illustrated this. Frasier and his younger brother Niles were intellectuals and both grew up to become psychiatrists. As nerdy kids all they did was study so they never learned to ride bikes. As adults they decided it was time to figure out how to pedal a two-wheeler for fun and exercise. Frasier was afraid of running certain objects so he’d make sure to keep an eye on them so he could steer clear. What do you think happened? He’d run into whatever he kept his eye on every time! He was like a moth drawn to a flame.
I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I began running many years ago. If I saw a rock in the road I’d keep my eye on it so I wouldn’t step on it. You know where this is going – I stepped on a lot of rocks until I realized what was happening!
I share this because when you’re trying to change someone’s behavior, trying to influence people, quite often you want them to stop doing something. Whatever captures our attention commands our focus so when you tell someone “Don’t…” all too often they forget the “don’t” and end up focusing on the thing you wanted them to stop! For example, if I tell you, “Don’t think of an elephant,” I’m sure you briefly thought of an elephant.
The better strategy is to redirect a person’s focus to something you want them to do. The golfer who sees water on the right side of the fairway should make it their focus to hit the ball to the left. It’s not a guarantee they won’t end up in the water but it’s a sure bet they’ll end up in the drink a lot less.
One area we really miss the mark when it comes to this psychology is texting and driving. Accidents due to texting and driving has become an epidemic. In addition to damaged vehicles, injuries and deaths, it has a big impact on the insurance rates you pay, even if you’re a good driver. Driverless cars will help alleviate this problem but having roads full of driverless cars may be decades away. We cannot afford to wait that long because too many lives will be lost in the meantime. When we say, “Don’t text and drive” we’re setting up too many people to focus on “text and drive.” We need to direct people’s attention to what we need them to do – pay attention to the road so everyone is safe.
Here are some examples of rephrasing:
- Instead of telling your teenager, “Don’t stay out past midnight,” tell him or her, “Be home by 11:45.”
- When talking to an employee avoid, “Don’t be late with the report,” and instead say, “Make sure you get me the report by Wednesday.”
- If it’s operating a car replace, “Don’t text and drive,” with “Always keep your eyes on the road.”
Having shared all this I should point out there might be times when you use “don’t” before an object because you want the other person focused on the object. That’s what Journey did with Don’t Stop Believin’. “Don’t stop” is a double negative so the words cancel each other out leaving you to focus on believin’ which is exactly what you want. In my industry we won’t stop believin’ that we can influence people to change driver behavior in order to save lives and heartache.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE and Learning Director at State Auto Insurance. His Lynda.com course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed nearly 130,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.