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An interesting approach to behaviors

Recently I was asked by some of my students to delve deeper into the topic of Behaviors. Especially they wanted to know how to deal with certain types of people, some of the more difficult such as intolerant ones, and how we could achieve better relationships all around. 

There are many elements to this answer… The first is that in every relationship there is more than one person. This means that there is a significant portion of the relationship you cannot manage. The outcome is that not every relationship is going to go the way we desire. However, your own behavior can be an even more important determining factor!

For this article, I decided to focus on a low hanging fruit, and here is a summary of this recent class I taught. The topic at hand is all about how YOU can react to others’ behaviors and the impact that this will have. In the class I drew this diagram to aid my explanation… 

This is a simple diagram. It starts at the top with “someone has an attitude”. This can be anything…. For example someone buys you a present, or your child breaks a light bulb playing indoors, or your dog pees in the incorrect location or your business partner… or your spouse, or your client… really… anyone. Because this is so broad it can be hard to explain, so let me use a real life example: my son decides that he does not want to eat and instead wants me to blow some soap bubbles…

My son’s attitude is going to be something I either like or dislike.

While this is really subjective, some people will like somethings while others will not, in this specific case, my wife and I really would like him to have discipline for eating. Therefore, his attitude, in our view, is something we dislike. So it would be the path on the right side of the above diagram. 

My reaction to my son’s behavior and attitude can then have two different reactions. I can Respond to his demand or I can Ignore him. The response can be quite varied: I can blow soap bubbles, I can tell him off for not eating, I can answer a sharp “no”, I can negotiate — I have many options, but the common element in these options is I Respond.

On the other hand, I can Ignore his attitude and just carry on as if he had not had that attitude. Just to complete the explanation of the diagram, the other side works exactly the same, but the subjective interpretation of the attitude/behavior is towards something I like.

Alright, so how can we manage this?

Well, there are two schools of thought here. The convention calls them Positive and Negative. While I would prefer not to judge them as such, that is the convention and so I will stick with this naming. Without doubt the most common approach is the Negative and this is how it works.

The Negative approach works in this way: When my son (in this example only!) has a behavior I disapprove, I let him know it! In the diagram above that would be Left+Right. For example, if you muck up a client presentation (a behavior no one likes) you will get attention from your superiors, the boss will call you into his office and have a word etc. The same would be true if you screwed something up at school, or at home etc… this method really is prevalent and I am sure that if you think for a moment you will come up with several examples where it happened to you!

Now, what if you have an attitude/ behavior that is liked? Examples of these things could be deliver a great presentation, get good grades at school, or take the garbage out at night… Again, I am sure you can think of many examples of attitudes and behaviors that are liked. What was the reaction to them? Mostly ignored. If you delivered a good presentation you may get a pat on the back, but nothing like the kind of scrutiny you would get were you to muck it up… Well, in this case the path on the diagram would be Left+Right. You will notice that both Negative paths are annotated with “Most common”. 

The basic principle of this approach is that, if you do something “wrong” / disliked, and you get a telling off, you will be discouraged to do that again, versus when you do something “good”, well, that is what is expected of you, so there is no need to intervene.  

This is clearly the most common approach. Part of the reason for the popularity is the analogy to pain: you do something wrong you get punished — for example, you put your finger in the plug, you get a shock! The analogy may work for people vs. Things… but does it work for people and people? The analogy is not really that accurate when it comes to relationships: if I tell my son off for trying to put his finger in the plug (Left+Right above) would I succeed in stopping him or just

Another approach…

Now this is where the clever bit comes in… What my son really wants is not me to blow soap bubbles… He wants something more meaningful, he wants what every person (regardless of age), what every pet, animal and other living organisms want… 

My attention



My son, like every other person, just wants to be showered with attention. His interaction is just an endless game of him trying different attitudes and behaviors and seeing which one gets the attention. If I am aware of this process I can see through so much more of this behavior and therefore manage him much better… If I know and understanding this process I can actually educate him!


So now that we understand the diagram and the concepts of attention it is time to put the two things together. First though, let me just run through it quickly. If the below paragraph does not make a lot of sense, let me know on the comments and we can clarify. If it does, I understand that my explanations up above have worked!

Continuing with the example of my son. He does not know if he is going to end up on the left or the right side of the diagram above when he is having any attitude. He just wants to get attention and he will try everything he can to find out what gets the result. This is particularly interesting as my son is only 1.5 years old at the time of this writing and he is just starting to get a grasp on the meaning of what I am saying, but mostly if I say “well done!” Or “Naughty!” He only receives one thing: “I got attention!” It is worth remembering that being on the left or right paths is a subjective result.