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.