Why won’t they just take my advice…?

Reading time 4 mins

Because bad habits often do a good job

Jean habitually smokes cigarettes. She knows the behaviour is frowned upon by others, is bad for her health and is costing her a lot of money. But she says she gets a lot out of the habit such as relaxation, stimulation, and, of course, rapport with other beleaguered smokers as they are increasingly targeted by society in general.

Jack works very long hours at his job and relaxes by over-eating at work and at home. His weight reflects his over-eating, his doctor has warned about the health risks, and he has to buy larger sizes of clothing every year. But he carries on with his comfort-eating.

Seven-year-old Tanya throws tantrums, breaks things, and is frequently disruptive because she feels her younger sister is getting more attention. Although Tanya gets scolded and punished for it her naughtiness continues – because it’s working! She is getting attention – even if it is the wrong kind and is uncomfortable.

13-year-old Charlie is frequently in trouble with the social services and the police because of his antisocial behaviour – damaging property and fighting with other young people. Despite the threats of custody and warnings about having a criminal record he carries on undaunted because being ‘anti-social’ is exciting and earns him the respect of his mates.

Ignoring perfectly good advice

As an outsider it’s easy to recognise the errors in other’s behaviours. We see that what they are doing isn’t good for them and sometimes, because we care, we carefully explain this to them so that they will recognise how right we are and change their ways.

But our well-intentioned advice very rarely has any impact.

So we try again and again, becoming progressively more forceful so that the advice-giving gives way to admonitions. And still they carry on in the old ways. And, again because we really care about them, we begin haranguing them – which, of course, doesn’t go down very well – and they demand that we leave them alone.

Question: why don’t they see the light and change their ways?

Answer: because the current behaviour works for them. It does the job – it fulfils values. In other words the behaviour gives them feelings which they want to feel – and/or helps them avoid feelings they don’t want to feel.

Yes, the current behaviour may have unwelcome side effects but it does the job. And until they have a better means of fulfilling these values they will not give up the old behaviour.

It’s as simple and as complex as that!

The implications

This simple-but-powerful concept has huge indications for anyone who seeks to influence others. Most “people influencers” have a rather touching belief that effectiveness of advice-giving and encouragement (or pressure or punishment) despite endlessly being shown that these approaches rarely have an enduring effect.

But they keep on doing it! Despite evidence to the contrary. Einstein is believed to have defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” yet few heed his words when it comes to influencing others.

So let’s look at why this approach doesn’t work.

Every habitual behaviour is doing a good job…

…or, as we say in NLP jargon, every behaviour has (or had) a positive purpose. Why ‘had’? Because sometimes the habit begins as a means of doing a good job and then becomes self-perpetuating even though it no longer fulfils the original purpose.

For example, like many other teenagers I began cigarette smoking as a rebellious gesture towards my parents and as a means of looking cool with my friends, all of whom smoked.

When people began to see smoking as a harmful and very un-cool activity it was too late – I was hooked. It was now fulfilling lots of other purposes – including being a means of avoiding the discomfort of ‘giving up’. It took me years to get free of the habit.

Don’t eliminate negative behaviours…

… replace them!

Since every behaviour fulfils values – gives us good feelings and/or helps us avoid bad ones – giving up a behaviour creates a void in our lives. Without the behaviour we no longer have a way of fulfilling the values!

As Jean sees it ‘ without cigarettes how could I relax, stimulate myself, and feel close to others?’

As Jack sees it ‘food makes me feel good – it blocks out unwelcome thoughts and feelings’.

As Tanya instinctively (though not consciously) realises ‘if I were to become quiet and well-behaved I’d become invisible to my parents’.

And as Charlie similarly recognises ‘being anti-social bonds me with my mates, earns me street-credibility, and banishes boredom’.

And until they have a better means of fulfilling their values they’ll hang on to the current proven-effective methods – however much the rest of the world gives them a hard time.

In their eyes you (the friend, partner, boss, police officer, parent, teacher, etc) can complain, cajole, harangue, threaten, punish, or plead as much as you like – it’s not going to change anything except maybe in the very short term and for a very short period.

Why? Because what others call “negative behaviour” has worked for me for a long time and I’m not giving it up until something better comes along – and that’s something that I don’t expect to happen. Yes, of course, there are side effects. But it’s a “swings and roundabouts” thing in which the benefits outweigh the drawbacks – and it works for me!

A better way of influencing

(1) Stop advice giving:

Not only does it not work but it frequently has negative consequences. For, example, the more you advise somebody to stop doing something, which emotionally they are unable to stop, the more they are likely to defend doing it – or feel guilty about their inability to follow your advice!

(2) Other ways of fulfilling values:

Coach the person in identifying all of the feelings (i.e. values) which their current negative behaviour is enabling them to feel or avoid feeling. Then help them find more constructive ways of fulfilling each of these values.

This coaching process is simple to describe but does require a certain amount of skill and, more importantly, a huge amount of patience backed up by the ability to refrain from advice giving or pressurising. (Incidentally, this process is an important part of our NLP Practitioner Programme.)

(3) Recognise your limitations:

You can’t change everyone. Sometimes people have to learn from their experience so the best we can do is to wait patiently – and maybe look at ways of dealing with our own less-useful behaviours in the meantime.


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