Getting people to do it right
The language of encouragement
'Positive framing' is very important when we want to influence and motivate others. And we can also use 'positive framing' to good effect to help our own wellbeing and performance in all kinds of areas.
But let's first consider not so positive framing. Recently I was working out in the gym. My training partner was trying to be encouraging of my efforts, but instead of telling me what I should do right,he kept telling me what I was doing wrong. The way he expressed his encouragement (or should I say attempted encouragement) had a rather less than empowering effect on me.
For example, he would say things like:
"No, don't hold your hands so close together!" and...
"Stop holding your breath when you lift!" and...
"Don't keep worrying about the position of the bar!"
and so on.
My training partner was trying to get me to do the right thing by pointing out what he felt I was doing wrong, but that still didn't give me a clear blueprint or 'template' for my mind to work toward.
And that can be a real problem as far as both clarity of communication and personal motivation are concerned.
In other words
Now I should emphasize that my training buddy is a very positive guy. It's just that he was trying to get me to be positively motivated by framing what I should do in negative terms - which somehow left me feeling like I was probably wasting my time even being there.
So instead of saying:
"No, don't hold your hands so close together!"
He could have framed this more positively by saying something like:
"That would work even better if you hold your hands a bit further apart on the bar! "
"Stop holding your breath when you lift!"
he might have framed the same idea as:
"That's it, and it might be easier to just let yourself breathe naturally as you lift... "
"Don't keep worrying about the position of the bar... "
Could have been better rendered as:
Notice how words like 'don't', 'stop' and 'worrying' have been replaced by words like: 'easier', 'better', and 'well'.
"I've got the bar covered, so just keep doing what you're doing because you're doing it really well... "
When encouragement, advice and direction are positively framed, the listener picks up the idea that there is some pay-off, some reward, for actually taking up and acting on the suggestions.
It's not that we should always wrap our communications in cotton wool. Sometimes we do have to spell out to people the negative consequences of what they have done, or what they might do. But, generally speaking, if you want people in your life to feel you are some kind of force for good for them, then it pays to frame things in the positive, to use the carrot rather than the stick (as I just did there for you).
Carrots and sticks
Consider, for a moment, government health promotion policy. Governments spend billions on trying to convey to their citizens the negative consequences of unhealthy behaviours like smoking. Scaring people out of a self-sabotaging habit with nasty facts might seem at first sight like a perfectly sensible strategy. However, research has found that the same part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, that lights up when people want a cigarette, is also activated when people see warning posters describing the dangers of smoking, or even graphic pictures of diseased lungs! (1)
Assuming that we can negatively motivate people into positive healthy action, although apparently common sense, turns out to be an expensive and wasteful business.
Of course, people need to be made aware of the nasty consequences of what they do, but once they have this information, emphasizing what they have to gain from changing their behaviour can be a much more effective way of encouraging and persuading them to do so.
This in fact was the conclusion of another study which looked at the outcomes of using positively framed versus negatively framed messages in health campaigns and also in consumer advertising in general. It found that positively framed messages were much more effective in changing behaviour. (2) Something my weight training partner needs to internalize, I think!
It's worth noting that the study did find an important use for negatively framed messages. They're great for getting attention. People notice them. But to get people to change behaviour, messages had to be positively framed.
Dangers of negative priming
When I use hypnosis with clients I like to encourage them to consider how good it's going to be to feel wonderfully relaxed in a few moments rather than focusing on how tense or upset they are feeling just now. When motivating others (and ourselves too, of course) we need to keep in mind the importance of creating a clear target to aim for, rather than just pointing out what to avoid. If some one tells you: "Don't be an idiot!" they are not actuallytelling you anything useful about what you need to do, think or feel. But now they have successfully implanted the idea of 'idiot' in your brain.
If we always tell people what they are doing wrong, or what they should not be, then we are subtly implying that they are what we are telling them not to be. This is how we can inadvertently damage the confidence and self esteem of people we communicate with.
Telling someone not to drop the ball sets the blueprint for dropping it. Talking about sick feelings, nausea and vomit to someone who is feeling a bit queasy, even if we are telling them not to experience these things, will likely only get them feeling a lot worse.
Focus on the desired outcome
When framing plans and resolutions for yourself, remember to focus on the desired outcome rather than on what you don't want. And when encouraging, advising, teaching, parenting or just offering support to a friend, tell them what to focus on and what to expect in a positive sense rather than pointing out where they are going wrong.
This might seem a simple point, but it's amazing how often it is missed even though we know, and research confirms, how important it is in motivating behaviour.
Positively orientated suggestions and words can make all the difference sometimes.
- Research carried out by Martin Lindstrom of the BrandSense Agency, and described in his book Buyology: How everything we believe about why we buy is wrong, (2009) Random House Business.
- See: D. J. O'Keefe; J. D. Jensen, 'Do Loss-Framed Persuasive Messages Engender Greater Message Processing Than Do Gain-Framed Messages?', Communication Studies, Volume 59, Issue 1, 2008, pp 51-67. (They could have thought of a more catchy title...)
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