When confronting difficult behavior, we typically focus on what we want the other person to stop doing. Sometimes this works. But too often, we create a “behavior vacuum” with this approach, making it harder for them to stop the difficult behavior. Here’s how to avoid this common misstep.
Last year, my generally well-trained agility dog suddenly started a behavior that really challenged my dog training know-how. Long obsessed with squirrels, cats, and any other critter that happens by the window, she took that obsession to a whole new level by beating on the windows with her paws — hard. Really hard.
We desperately needed to get her to stop before she broke a window and cut herself badly. In a house with more windows than wall, it wasn’t simply a matter of lowering dozens of shades and living in troglodytic darkness.
It was a matter of changing the mental model I was using to solve the problem. I needed to get myself to Do-Land.
We all remember this from secondary school science: Nature abhors a vacuum. What happens when we create a vacuum? Nature wants to fill it.
When we tell someone to stop a difficult behavior, particularly when that behavior is a well-worn habit, we help create a void where the old behavior once lived. I call these Behavior Vacuums.
I recall first running into Behavior Vacuums when I began teaching Basic Mediation years ago. My co-teacher and I told participants we had just one rule for the next few days of mediating: Don’t give people advice or suggestions about how to solve their problem.
Why come to a training and practice what you already know how to do? Most of you, we’d say, are probably very good advice-givers. You know how to solve problems by telling people what to try. Let’s suspend that habit for the duration of the training.
Of course, it was very hard for participants to do. Sometimes they weren’t even aware they’d lapsed into advice-giving and were shocked when we gently touched a shoulder to remind them to refrain from advice. Sometimes they’d try to disguise it in the form of a question, as though hanging a question mark at the end legitimized it: What do you think about the idea of a payment plan for what you owe?
So we started drawing a big circle on the board at the beginning of the first session. We’d say, this is the void we’ve created by telling you not to give advice. Your advice-giving self will probably get sucked repeatedly into this void at the beginning. But gradually, we’ll introduce tools and skills you can use to fill the void. If you keep practicing these tools and skills, they will become far more powerful than almost any solution you could offer as a mediator.
The goal, in other words, is to fill Behavior Vacuums with a better behavior. That’s where Do-Land comes in.
Let’s go to Do-Land
I swiped the phrase Do-Land from legendary dog trainer and agility champion Susan Garrett. Garrett believes it’s better to train dogs by living in the land of “do” than living in the land of “don’t.”
It is far easier to teach [your dog] something to do than something not to do.
It’s Garrett’s Do-Land method that resulted in my dog ceasing her window bashing. Instead of trying to get her to stop beating on windows whenever a squirrel wandered by (which didn’t work), I taught her what I wanted her to do instead: Run to her mat and sit down. She is paid handsomely for her success, too.
Here are a few examples from the kinds of scenarios I run into frequently:
Do-Land questions and objections
Why should it be my problem to figure out Do-Land for them? They’re adults, not dogs.
Do-Land is as much for you as it is for them. You are, after all, confronting difficult behavior you want changed. And by identifying a behavior to do instead of creating a Behavior Vacuum, you increase their chance for success. I find it smoother sailing to be in partnership with someone instead of in the position of school marm.
I have no idea what they should do instead. I just want them to stop doing this thing…
Adopting a new mental model often does feel like a challenge, yes, because we’re changing our own habit of Fixing By Preventing. Try visualizing in your mind’s eye what you’d love to see them do in place of the difficult behavior. If they reacted brilliantly, what would that reaction look or sound like?
Why can’t I just ask them what Do-Land might look like?
By all means, ask! Enlisting someone in their own success is a powerful option for their own development and for taking some of the weight off your shoulders. Try asking, What could you do instead of doing X?
Are you saying we should never tell someone “don’t”?
Problem solving isn’t binary; it’s a continuum. And the complexity of human nature makes me want to avoid absolute rules like this. I am saying that when it comes to confronting difficult behavior, “don’t” can make it harder to achieve the very thing you’re trying to get at.