Sometimes you inadvertently work against yourself without even knowing it. Case in point, you want someone to not do something so you tell them, “Don’t do that.” Your approach is quick and to the point but it might make the person more likely to do that very thing! Here are a few examples you might relate to:
- You tell your child, “Don’t watch that television program, it’s trash.” Your motive is good, keep negative influences away from your child.
- When talking to your spouse you remind him or her, “Don’t eat that, it’s unhealthy,” because you care about their health.
- Your thoughts are, “Don’t go in the water,” as you prepare to tee off on the 18th hole where there’s water on the right.
Good Intention, Poor Execution
Your intention is good in each case but the execution could be better. You see, a couple of things are working against you and you probably didn’t realize it: priming and scarcity. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Priming is the concept that many things influence your thinking and subsequent behavior with little or no awareness on your part. Small cues in the environment, what you see, read and hear can cause you to behave in ways you might not normally or would be less likely to in the absence of the primes.
One simple example comes from a Dutch study where obese people were given coupons upon entering a grocery store. Some people received coupons that had words related to dieting and healthy living. Others were given coupons that did not contain those words. The result, those with the healthy words bought far fewer unhealthy items because they were primed to think about more health-conscious choices.
Mentioning the television program, unhealthy food and water on the golf course only serve to draw attention to each and makes the unwanted behavior more likely to occur. Consider this example; don’t think about a tiger. Unless you consciously switch your thoughts to something like a bear, a dog or something altogether different, it’s a good bet you’re thinking about a tiger. And telling yourself, “Don’t think about a tiger,” only makes you think about a tiger!
The second factor that works against you in many cases is scarcity. It’s human nature to want whatever is rare, scarce or going away. If you think you can’t have something you almost instinctively want it. And, whenever some freedom is perceived to be restricted you work harder to preserve that freedom.
In the examples of television and food noted above, each admonition restricts the other person only causing them to want the thing even more.
What can you do?
What are you to do then if you want a different behavior? Your best bet is to direct attention away from the behavior you don’t want to a behavior you prefer. Rather than telling someone to not think about a tiger, tell them to think about dogs, horses or some other animal. Let’s take a look at our examples:
- You direct your child to a different television program, preferably giving choices so he or she feels a sense of control. “How about a Disney movie or Sesame Street instead?”
- The same thought applies to your spouse and food. Direct him or her to healthy alternatives and give choices. “Would you rather have veggies and hummus or fruit with yogurt for our snack?”
- When it comes to golf, focus on what you want. You can do so by telling yourself, “Aim at the tree on the left to keep the ball on the left side of the fairway.” This should keep you out of the water more often than not.
Will these approaches work every time? Of course not because this isn’t a magic wand. However, each approach will work more often than focusing on telling someone, “Don’t do that.” In the long run, using an approach as I’ve outlined will get you what you want more often. Considering it’s a small, costless change, isn’t it worth giving a try?
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. His Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed by more than 50,000 people! His latest course, Persuasive Coaching, just went live. Have you watched them yet? If not, click on either course name to see what you’ve been missing.