The book Counterclockwise focuses on health, but its principles also apply to many other aspects of life. Author Ellen J. Langer suggests taking “one small step” toward a health goal conventional wisdom might tell you is unattainable.
She’s right. My cousin was injured years ago. Even after extensive rehab, he couldn’t move the affected leg. The focus of his treatment turned to coping, rather than curing. Then, one night, he was sitting on the edge of his bed and noticed that he could slightly move his toes. Today, he can walk.
I’ve been applying the one-small-step approach in other ways. If I’m thinking, I’ll wait till later to clean up the kitchen, I switch to, I’ll take one small step toward cleaning up the kitchen. I load the dishwasher-safe items into the machine. The number of hand-washables then looks less daunting. The next small step becomes easier.
When I decided to launch a second career teaching people, persuasion, consensus building and related communication skills, I was fresh from an intensive week’s negotiation training at Harvard. I knew that many people couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the time and money to take a full-week course. So I began by developing a one-day course. I can cover the basic material in one day. The trainees can practice what they’ve learned two or three times in class.
However, I emphasize that they need more practice to become proficient. I tell them it’s like learning to drive. You can only get so far by reading my book or listening to my lectures. Even after my first intensive weeklong training, with three practice exercises per day, my negotiation skill level was like that of a driver able to pass the license exam, but not yet fully comfortable on the road nor up to handling an icy overpass. So I urge trainees to practice on their own.
The biggest challenge for my trainees and readers making time to practice. I advise the one-small-step approach.
After a lesson on questions, I gave a private coaching client a few rubber bands to put around one wrist each morning. During the day, when she wanted to make a statement to someone, she should substitute a question, then, move one of the rubber bands to her other wrist. For example, instead of telling a child, “Turn off the TV and finish your homework,” she might say, “Have you done your homework?”
The small-step approach worked so well for her that she found herself moving the rubber bands back and forth between her wrists more than once a day. After her next lesson, I instructed her to take the next small step by asking not just any question, but an open question, one that can’t be answered yes or no, such as “How much homework do you have left?” And so forth each week.
And that, dear readers, is my advice to you as well. Pick a skill you haven’t made time to practice. You might choose paraphrasing or pausing to think before you speak. Use the rubber band approach to take one small step at a time.
Before you know it, these skills will become habits, and you’ll be able to call on them even in high-stakes, high-pressure situations.