In an article about how to make someone’s day, Martha Beck writes about a client, a young woman with anxiety disorder, whose parents accompanied her to a counseling session. After the parents expressed their worry, the woman asked them to stop worrying because it only put more pressure on her. The last thing those suffering from anxiety need is more pressure. They are, to use Beck’s terms, “fairly drowning in stress hormones” as it is.
Sadly, the parents continued as if they had not heard what their daughter had said, even when Beck asked them to repeat it, even when Beck herself repeated it, even when the daughter shouted her agreement with the counselor’s paraphrase. Sadly, the interchange ended with the father declaring his determination to keep worrying because “It’s our job,” and he got the opposite result of what he wanted—for his daughter to relax.
Beck suggests that, if you start to worry about someone, if you would like to help them change something about their life, you can do them more good by substituting another activity for your worry. My take on her advice is that you should choose an activity that occupies your mind with something positive, or at least neutral—work a crossword, practice the piano, sit down and start that novel you’ve been wanting to read (or write).
Pressuring someone, whether by worry or any other means, is not only bad for them, it’s bad for you if your goal is to persuade them to commit to a significant change in their behavior. (And when the person may not have total control of that change, as in the case of the woman with anxiety disorder, pressure can feel like love, but represent unintentional cruelty.)
True, pressure can motivate someone to take a quick and irrevocable action. At an auction, the bidding process increases tension. You get caught up and raise your paddle in the blink of an eye. The auctioneer’s hammer falls, and you’ve bought a cabinet too big for your house. No turning back.
But when the action or change you desire will take time to effect, or when the other person remains free to reverse that change, in other words, in most interactions within a business or personal relationship, you don’t face a situation where it’s easy for that person to raise his paddle with no turning back. Rather, you face a situation where it is only too easy for him to refuse, put you off, or change his ways for a while, then slack off.
When you seek commitment, whether you wish to motivate someone to improve their health, persuade your teenage son to turn off the cell phone before he turns on the car engine, or build consensus with a coworker who disagrees about how to perform a joint project, you get better results in a positive, relaxed atmosphere.
Think about it, how do you respond when your boss reads you the riot act about your productivity? Maybe you try to work harder or faster for a while, but you do it grudgingly and/or fearfully. The grudge and fear detract from your work quality, and when you can, you look for a more agreeable job. That is, you look for another job if the boss hasn’t already sacked you for the decreased work quality that his high-pressure approach created. How effective was that boss in getting what he wanted?
So what do we do instead of upping the pressure? Well, the persuasion system I recommend forms the subject of many another article in this blog, as well as of my book Bridges to Consensus, all of which I encourage you to read. But you can start by keeping yourself calm and relaxed during a consensus-seeking or persuasive conversation. Martha Beck’s technique of focusing on a positive, but unrelated, activity before entering that conversation offers us one more tool for relaxing and calming ourselves for effective persuasion.
Re: “…fairly drowning in stress hormones”
I really like your advice, a’ la Martha Beck. I think Daniel J. Siegel’s research (among others) is showing, in part, just how contagious moods and feelings are or can be, and that they are “picked up” by mirror neurons in our brains. So, for a companion or helper (friend, therapist, coach, mentor) to be able to generate either neutral or positive mood and feeling is, to my mind, a wordless plus and help. The mirror neurons will pick it up, at least in part.
That said, Siegel also carefully extends the notion of brain – that it’s not all in our heads; that there are vast clusters of neurons, synapses, and neuro-transmitters embracing our physical hearts and our physical guts (solar plexus region); that we have a head brain, if you will, and a heart brain, and a gut brain.
When I read “drowning in stress hormones,” I accept that as a self-report of something picked up from the gut brain. And more and more I think the response/treatment of choice for the same is not words and thoughts but somatic – body treatments. There are any number of those now, some drawing on ancient practices like qi-gong, some modifying ancient practices (neurogenic yoga), and others developed out of close observation of children and animals casting off the gut-brain effects of trauma (TRE, for example). They amount to ways to “shake it out,” often quite literally.
How this fits in the instance you portray – one person in distress and drowning in stress hormones, the other in a different distress and the hormones of worry – I’m not quite certain. It’s an area I’m exploring, partly by close attention to a client who is experiencing incredible relief from trauma-informed symptoms by means of TRE. Our Western bias is toward words. But here we have things to learn from Eastern wisdom and wordless practices – ancient and contemporary.
For what that’s worth,
Thank you, Mark.I agree with all you wrote, and you have mentioned several methods I want to learn more about. I’m sure my other blog readers will appreciate what you have added here.
I am also reminded of some self-help advice I read a long time ago to the effect that, just as moods change our posture and other body language, we can take the initiative and reverse that process. So, for example, if I am feeling low, I might find myself walking with head and shoulders drooping. But if I deliberately raise my head, pull my shoulders back, and stride across the room (or better, take a ten minute walk that way), I will find my mood improves. I have tried it, and it works.