Instant (and lasting) Conversational Change
A friend sent me a very interesting example of conversational change:
In the biography of Janos Starker, world-renowned cellist — who has recorded more pieces than any other, and who was once called the “King of Cellists” and still teaching at 86 — there is a story concerning his habit of being late for concert performances. Starker is quoted as follows:
“I remember vividly my frantic inventions of excuses for arriving late, already the fifth time, while I was changing into my tuxedo as the overture played without me.
“Dear John Mundy, the orchestra manager, interrupted my colorful story and said, ‘Don’t, Janos — I know how unpleasant it is for you to be late.’
“Twenty-two years later, I do not recall ever again being late for any professional obligation.”
How did this single comment permanently change Starker’s habit of being late? Pause now to review the information provided above, and think about how this brief comment resulted in instant and permanent change. . . .
Notice that Janos describes the situation as a “professional obligation.” I think it is very likely (though I can’t prove it) that Janos had been thinking that he should be on time, in order to please others — since that is what most people mean by the word “obligation.” Like most people, he had an opposite response to this implied demand, making him chronically late. (“arriving late, already the fifth time”)
Whenever someone else says, “You should—” most people’s typical response is “I don’t want to—” what is called a “polarity response.” This kind of response can even occur when we already want to do something! As Paul Watzlawick said, “Maturity is doing what you want to do, even when your mother thinks it’s a good idea.”
At the moment that Mundy spoke to him, the fact that he was frantic and can recall it vividly indicates that Janos’s attention was totally occupied: “I remember vividly my frantic inventions of excuses for arriving late, already the fifth time, while I was changing into my tuxedo as the overture played without me.”
When Mundy said, “Don’t Janos,” that was an unexpected interrupt, which typically makes someone much more ready to accept any subsequent communication. (See my blog post on pattern interrupts)
Then Mundy said something that must also have been very unexpected, another interrupt. Rather than complain, or scold him, or judge his lateness, and its impact on others, he is sympathetic, and presupposes that his lateness is unpleasant for Janos. “I know how unpleasant it is for you to be late.”
This shifted Janos’ attention from “Other people are feeling bad” to “I am feeling bad.” Once his ?attention is redirected toward his own feelings it becomes easy for ?him to change his behavior. “This feels terrible; I don’t want to do this any more!” (It must have ?been very unpleasant for him to be rushing to put on his tuxedo while making up frantic excuses, as the orchestra is playing without him!)
Redirecting his attention to his own unpleasantness changed his external “should” (please others) to an internal “want,” (to avoid the unpleasantness) and that is the crucial difference that made it easy for him to change, and for that change to last 22 years.
Another way of thinking about this change is that initially his “should” and his “want” were in opposition. Mundy’s comment changed his want to be in alignment with the should, so he became congruent about being on time.
Wants are typically much more effective at motivating us than shoulds. If this were emblazoned on the walls of our minds, all us — especially parents — could save ourselves an enormous amount of conflict, difficulties, and unpleasant consequences. Even when children, teenagers, or adults dutifully follow a should, the “I don’t want to” response is still there, a polarity lurking and waiting for an opportunity to emerge into behavior. But when our own wants are motivating our behavior, we are much more congruent, and much less likely to engage in any kind of mindless rebellion or other self-destructive behavior.
I love small and concise examples like this — especially conversational ones — that can illustrate so clearly an important principle of how we can change quickly and effortlessly.
The next time you find yourself about to tell someone else (or yourself) that they should do something, pause. . . . And then think about what aspects of doing that would naturally and spontaneously be enjoyable or pleasurable, . . . or what consequences of doing that would be attractive. . . . or how doing that would demonstrate something positive and praiseworthy. . . . And then think about what you could say — and how you could say it nonverbally — that could elicit a response of wanting to do it. . . .
When her son wanted her to do something, a very wise woman I know would often say to him, “I could do that; can you make me want to do it?” as a way of training him to develop his persuasion skills (instead of his whining and complaining skills, as so many parents unwittingly do).
And if you really can’t think of anything else useful to say, it would probably be much better not to say anything at all — both verbally and nonverbally — so that you don’t elicit the polarity response to the word “should,” which is a very dependable way to make your life — and that of others — “shoulddy.”