On most mornings, during my commute to work, I drive by a guy wearing a bright yellow chicken suit. Yep, this is a true story. Stuff like this is just too good to make up. He’s strategically positioned on the corner of Center City Parkway and Mission Avenue, holds a sign encouraging those passing by to eat at the Golden Omelet House restaurant, and the best part is he’s usually dancing.
I have got to give this young man credit; he is one of the most enthusiastic sign-spinners I have ever seen. He is continually bobbing up and down, kicking out his feet, wears an enormous grin that is visible through the open beak of his costume, and he waves at me every time I pass by.
If you’re starting to think that I am far too easily entertained, then you are probably right. But even more so, I am curious. As I watch this dancing chicken, I find myself wondering, why would anyone think that a guy wearing a chicken suit would cause me to want to eat at their restaurant? Although this brightly costumed sign-spinner has certainly succeeded in getting my attention, I am not sure that this is the best strategy for communicating that good food is right around the corner.
In fact, in some ways the dancing chicken has the opposite effect. When I pointed him out to my wife, her response was, “Yeah, let’s not eat there.” But, perhaps the reason that I am so fascinated with this guy is that, as unusual as this may sound, the man in the chicken suit and I actually have a lot in common. In fact, it’s likely that most people can relate to the dancing chicken far more than they realize. Like the guy in a chicken suit, most of us:
- Have an important message that we want to share with others
- Are working incredibly hard to influence those around us to take action
- In spite of our efforts, at times we can completely miss our audience
One area where I have found this to be especially true is in communications between parents and teenagers. Parenting is hard work, and it isn’t getting any easier. If you are a parent of a teenage son or daughter, my heart goes out to you. I will be there myself in a few short years and find the thought of supporting my daughters in navigating the challenges of the teen years especially intimidating. So, what do most of us do in our attempts to positively influence our children? If you’re like me and the other parents I know, at times you have:
- Raised your voice
- Given out consequences
- Over-explained again—because maybe they just didn’t understand the first five times, and perhaps this time will be different
But, it’s not just parents who communicate in this manner, many leaders find themselves using these less than ideal strategies as well. Although the tools in this article are applied specifically to parenthood, everyone who desires to instill positive change in others will find these ideas valuable. Like the guy in the bright yellow chicken suit, all of us have an important message to share, and many of us are working incredibly hard to get that message out. Yet, the attempts listed above rarely produce the positive results desired. William Glasser, a well known therapist and founder of choice theory referred to these techniques as external control psychology and discouraged their use because they tend to damage the relationship and rarely lead to lasting internal change.
While there may be a time and a place for these techniques—and I am by no means suggesting that they be given up entirely—I would like to propose that there is a better way to influence positive change, and it all begins with taking off the chicken suit. This means letting go of our drastic attempts to gain the attention of others and replacing them with a genuine desire to become in-tune with the other person’s needs. While the following three techniques are not perfect, they are a good place to start.
Three Strategies for Influencing Positive Change
1. Let go of the righting-reflex (at least for now).
Parents tend to have an overactive righting-reflex. The positive side of this is that this means we really care about our kids. The down side is that this reflex works against us when it comes to leading our children to lasting change. Let me further explain. The righting-reflex is that part of us that cringes every time we hear something wrong. It longs to fix and wants the situation corrected right now.
For example, if your teenage daughter were to begin talking about a new boy that she met at school who has body piercings, dyes his hair an unusual color, or in some way stands out from the crowd and any of these things are a hot-button for you, then your righting-reflex will want to immediately interject. You might then state something like, “Oh honey, you don’t really want to spend so much time with him, do you?”. This reflex gets anxious over anything perceived as wrong and wants to immediately correct the situation.
The problem with an overactive righting-reflex is that being quick to correct shuts down the conversation, and when our children (or anyone else) shuts down, they aren’t moving toward change. I know that putting a pause on this reflex can be difficult, but it is also necessary because it allows us to understand the other person’s point of view and to develop a connection with them. This is important because helping a person to feel understood is often the first step in supporting them in moving toward change.
The next step in influencing positive change involves listening. I realize that by asking you to pause the righting-reflex, I have already requested that you do something challenging, and this next step can be even more difficult. Active listening is a lot of work and involves:
- Turning our body toward the other person
- Putting other activities on hold in order to give our undivided attention
- Making eye-contact
- Asking questions that draw out the story
Yes, attentive listening is difficult, but the type of listening suggested here is even more difficult because it involves letting your child talk…, and talk…, and talk… without seeking to change him or her, giving advice, fixing, imparting words of wisdom, or seeking to make things right. But don’t worry, we will get to that piece; I promise.
Instead of seeking to change, we might ask open ended questions that encourage the story, nod our head to acknowledge that we are listening, and briefly summarize the details to make sure that we have understood what is being said.
3. Gently Guide
If you are a parent and have made it this far, you’re a rock-star! Listening and letting go of the righting-reflex is by no means an easy task. However, once you’ve made it this far, it is likely that you have noticed that your child is talking—I mean really talking— and sharing parts of his or her world with you that you didn’t know existed.
Like most parents, there are times when I am guilty of going a-gazillion-miles-an-hour trying to get everything done at once, and there are times when I forget to provide this type of focused listening to my girls. Nevertheless, during those times when I do stop what I am doing, put my righting-reflex on hold, and actively listen to what they have to say, I’m always surprised at how much they have to tell me. I find myself learning new things about their friends, hobbies, school activities, and gathering new information about what they like and don’t like. I have found that listening opens the door to gaining a better understanding of my daughters and allows me to gently guide them in a positive direction
Imagine for a moment that you are driving your car, when suddenly you realize that you have taken a wrong turn, and are headed in the opposite direction of where you want to go. Normally that’s not too much of a problem because all you have to do is make a u-turn to get back on track. Now imagine that you are driving a car headed in the wrong direction and the engine abruptly dies. Suddenly it is going to take a lot of work to get to your destination. Steering a moving car is easy, but if the car is shutdown, you are not going to get anywhere fast.
Influence works the same way. It is much easier to guide others in a positive direction when they are openly talking to us, and rarely does influence happen when they are shutdown. By pausing our righting-reflex, and attentively listening to what those around us have to say, we learn about their needs and discover why they are doing things that they do. This allows us to gently steer them in a positive direction. The three techniques mentioned in this post come out of motivational interviewing, a therapeutic modality that seeks to support others through the five stages of change. It suggests that when a person feels accepted for who they are, that person then has the freedom to move toward change as opposed to defending the things they have done in the past. These tools also help prevent the back and forth, tug-o-war type of arguments that frequently occur during difficult conversations about change. After all, it is incredibly difficult to argue with someone who is actively listening to what you have to say.
Using these techniques isn’t the same thing as doing therapy, as these tools are simply good leadership and relationship skills in general. These three tools assist us in building the bond needed to speak influentially into the lives of others. As you can see, these skills are not just for parents, but are invaluable tools that can be applied to all walks of life. Leading people to positive change always happens best when we first seek to understand and then seek to be understood. Obviously there is much more that could be said about this subject, and we will examine some additional tools and techniques in future articles.
But for now, I would love to know, have you ever felt like a guy in a chicken suit, working really hard to influence someone else with little results? Are you currently using any techniques to guide others to positive change that are working especially well? And has there ever been a time when you have paused the righting-reflex, focused on what someone had to say, and were pleasantly surprised by the results? If so, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!