There is a secret to having happy, healthy, long-lasting relationships. The secret is in understanding natural principles.
Natural Principle #1:
We Are Influenced By Our Environments
We all have a nervous system and because we see, smell, hear, taste, and feel, we are influenced by what goes on around us. There is a school of thought out there that suggests we should not be influenced by our environments or other people. While there is value in that rule of thumb in a general sense, if someone suddenly shouts, “Boo!” it can be very difficult not to jump.
Being influenced by our environments can be a double-edged sword. Being put down, ignored, criticized, or threatened often has a negative impact on our immune system, our confidence, and self-esteem; while being in a supportive, fun, interesting, and nurturing environment can foster growth and a strong self-image. The influence, though, is not guaranteed. A person can come from a pretty rough environment and still turn out ok. Another person can make huge mistakes in life, even if they've had a solid upbringing. What affects one person one way, may affect another person another way. We are all unique.
The point here is that we are all a part of each other’s environments. Because environments do have some influence, we influence others by being a part of their environment and vice versa. It's important to understand that you do influence people around you even if you feel like you don't. If you're kids don't listen to you, if your wife nags you, if your husband ignores you, or if your boss is tough on you, you have some amount of influence over your current situation. We can influence each other for better or for worse.
Natural Principle #2:
We Live In A World Of Cause And Effect
Newton’s third law of physics states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Relationships don’t work exactly the same way as physics, but we do live in a world of cause and effect. For every action we take with another human being, there is going to be some response…even when the response is a lack of a response. A failed signal is still a signal.
Because we live in a world of cause and effect, you can start to notice the feedback you are receiving. If you don’t like it, you can change your part and see what happens. Relationships are a bit like a game of pool. If you want to hit the green ball into the pocket, the first ball you hit is the white ball. If you want to sink the red ball, you first hit the white one. All the balls move around the table, but the player only directly touches a single ball. In your life, you are the cue ball. In my life, I am.
You can get good at reading the feedback you are getting. If you are getting positive feedback, you are likely doing something right, so if it's not broken, don't try to fix it. If you don’t like the feedback you are getting, you might consider changing something about yourself, not the other person. Remember that the other balls don't move until you move your ball first. It's much easier to control ourselves than it is to try to control others, yet that's the last place most of us start. In pool, hitting the colored balls directly would be considered cheating. Once you understand your part in another person's behavior, you can adjust yourself to better fit the situation.
Natural Principle #3:
The Order Matters
We're going to start in a particular order. Imagine if you took a long trip but didn't stop for gas until after you ran out. That would cause a lot more problems than putting the gas in first. Simple, right? If the car won't drive, some people get angry and blame the car rather than themselves for not filling the tank. They might decide to get a new car and still not fill the tank again. Replacing one car with another and still not putting the gas in first won't solve the issue. Changing cars can become a very expensive proposition. The car represents your relationships and you are responsible for providing the fuel to keep them running. There is an order we are going to use in creating better relationships. The order is just as critical as putting gas in the car before driving it.
- Read and understand behavior: First, we are going to make sure that you can read and understand behavior. You will be reading behavior every step of the way. It's the other person's behavior that will inform you as to how you are doing. Like a low fuel indicator, it will also let you know if there is something that you need to change. It's critical that you learn to read it right. Doing the wrong thing at the right time, won't work. Doing the right thing at the wrong time won't work either. We've got to make sure that we are reading the situation correctly, so that we understand accurately, and act appropriately.
- Create a bond: Second, we'll work on various ways to strengthen bonds. Bonds are the invisible glue that hold relationships together. Without a bond, there is no leverage. It's very difficult to have a positive influence with a person if they won't speak to you or be around you. Some people think that tangible things like gifts, diamond rings, or money will hold people together. These things feel good, but they aren't the real glue. There are ways to strengthen bonds and also ways to damage them. The bond itself is invisible but it will be drastically apparent to you when yours are strong vs when they are weak.
- Shape behavior: Lastly, we'll look at how to shape or influence behavior in a positive way. Behavior is best influenced only when we can read a situation accurately and when the bond is already strong. Trying to shape a person's behavior when the other two ingredients are not in place will often lead to resistance or resentment. It's like trying to drive a car with no gas and getting frustrated at the car. Getting the order right, however, often results in the other person taking action willingly and with a cheerful demeanor. That is how the order works.
A mistake that many people make is getting the order wrong. Most people want to shape behavior first. If your spouse leaves, it's normal to want to hurry up and get them to come back right away. If your kids are doing poorly in school, of course you would be inclined to look for ways to help them do better. But why did the spouse leave and why are the kids doing poorly? To have the best shot at turning things around, we need to have an accurate interpretation of what is causing the outcome by being able to properly read the situation. How is your bond? Is the relationship strong enough to handle a solution once the cause is clear? Read the gauge, fill the tank, drive the car.
Wanting to change another person's behavior immediately is totally understandable. However, shaping behavior comes last not first, because when done correctly, you aren't actually shaping their behavior at all. Instead, you are shaping your own behavior and learning to identify how other people respond to you.
Natural Principle #4:
Togetherness is Natural
The first thing to understand about behavior is that togetherness is completely natural for mammals, and human beings are a mammal. How many living creatures besides people, can you think of that live together in groups? Elephants, dogs, cats, horses, lions, whales, hyenas, tigers, bears, giraffes, cows, penguins, ants, dolphins, fish… almost all of the animals live together in groups. Why do they do this? Why do we do this?
The main reason is for safety and comfort. Just watch a National Geographic episode and watch what happens to the little antelope that gets too far away from the herd. The lion gets it. Poor little antelope…There is an instinct inside all of us that says, “stay together.” Some people’s instinct is stronger. They might hear, “Stay together or die.”
Natural Principle #5:
We Prefer Comfort Over Discomfort
In his famous, yet controversial experiments with monkeys, Harry Harlow showed that when taken away from their mothers, baby monkeys would cling to soft, warm, fuzzy objects more often than they would cling to cold, hard dummies made out of wire. He also found that monkeys who were deprived of this comfort had a much higher incidence of violent and anti-social behavior later in life.
How does this apply to you? In your relationships, are you a warm, soft, fuzzy comfort to the people around you or are you a cold, hard, wire dummy? Consider it metaphorically for a moment. Any time you are critical, nit-picky, overly harsh, arrogant, or emotionally removed, the people near you likely won't find you comfortable to be around. Nagging your husband, nit-picking your employees, or being critical of your kids may result in them avoiding or resisting you. The more pressured or anxious you become, the more likely you are to get a negative, rather than a positive, result. Comfort attracts. Discomfort repels. In your relationships, it important to be aware of which one you're being most often.
It is natural for a person to want to be comfortable. When you show genuine interest in them, smile, play, are affectionate, or complimentary, you will be comfortable to be around. People are drawn and attracted to comfort. People are motivated by wanting to feel comfortable.
Understanding the dynamic of comfort vs discomfort is critical in both creating bonds and influencing behavior. If you want your spouse to stay happily married to you, your children to willingly obey you, or your employees to work harder to please you, notice how your behavior affects their feelings of comfort or discomfort. As you get more familiar with this, you can purposely use the comfort/discomfort dynamic to influence behavior. Comfort creates a sense of belonging. Discomfort creates a sense of isolation and anxiety. Understanding how comfort and discomfort affect behavior is important. As a general rule, if you want to be comfortable, create it for others. If you are uncomfortable, notice where you are creating discomfort for others.
Natural Principle #6:
Behavior Is Motivated By Trying To Meet Needs
Because we are living, breathing beings, we each have needs. We have physical needs like food, shelter, sleep, and air. We have emotional needs like safety, comfort, love, and play. Any action a person takes will stem from an intent to meet one or more needs that person has. We all have needs. The first step is in recognizing that it is natural and ok to have them.
I remember giving a presentation to a group of people. My friend and her boyfriend were in the audience. When it was over, my friend told me that at the break, her boyfriend got surprisingly emotional. He said, "My whole life, I thought it was my job as the man, to meet everybody else's needs but I wasn't supposed to have any of my own." We all have needs...even tough guys and tough gals. A large part of the reason we get together with other people is to get those needs met. It doesn't make a person 'needy' to have needs. It makes a person natural.
Even when a person does have a negative behavior, that behavior will still link back to an attempt to meet a need that is positive. Imagine a person who gets really upset that the child support check is late. If the check is late, they might not be able to pay their rent which could get them kicked out of where they live. Although getting really upset is an unproductive behavior, the check being late might be linked to having shelter, feeling safe, and being comfortable all of which are positive. When a person does something, it always links back to meeting a need,...even when the behavior itself is negative.
If you are trying to influence someone to change their behavior, it is helpful to understand the need that might be motivating it. Imagine asking people to give up their place in a bread line during the depression. How many people would willingly move? Now imagine pulling up with a truck-load of free turkey dinners? How many people do you think would willingly leave the bread line to come get a free turkey dinner from your truck? We are motivated by making sure our needs get met. People are often perfectly willing to change their behavior so long as their needs get met by the new behavior.
Natural Principle #7:
We Interpret Our Environments
All around us every day, we are surrounded by facts and the facts are in a constant state of change. It’s nice outside but suddenly the weather turns cool and before long, it starts raining. We need to make a decision. How do we decide what to do? The way to come to the answer is to interpret the facts.
If you've ever tried to communicate with another person who didn't understand your point, you may recall the frustration that comes when you’re doing your best to communicate and the communication simply isn’t working. Studies show that people delete, distort, generalize, or add information that may or may not be there. We do our best to interpret accurately, but a lot of our current interpretations come from our past experiences. It is helpful to be aware that we do our best to be accurate in our interpretations. Others do their best also, but brains function in sometimes non-reliable ways.
We can condition what our brain does and doesn't register through consciously training how we interpret things. If you believe that good things happen to you all day long, your brain will notice the good things that are happening and bring them to your awareness. The converse is true as well. This is important to understand in your relationships because a person's self-esteem is closely tied to their interpretations. Since we influence one another by being a part of their environment, we can influence a person's self-esteem, which will actually condition their Reticular Activation System and cause them to be aware of, or tune out, certain facts around them. We can influence a person into noticing why they are so wonderful, special, amazing, and important or we can influence them into finding proof that they are good for nothing and fail at everything they do. Knowing that the brain can be conditioned is very important so we don't unconsciously condition others in a hurtful way.
Natural Principle #8:
We All Have A Stress Response
Anytime a person gets more uncomfortable than they can stand, a stress response can be triggered. Otherwise known as the survival instinct, the stress response triggers Fight, Flight, or Freeze behaviors.
Fighting with another person is rarely comfortable, yet it is perfectly natural when someone is under more pressure than they can manage. They may raise their voice, say something mean, roll their eyes, or stomp around. Rather than fighting, some people leave. They may walk away, get in their car and drive away, refuse to talk to you, or simply tune you out. When a person freezes, they may get tongue-tied, have trouble responding, or act like they understand you when they actually don’t.
Encountering Fight/Flight/Freeze behavior is rarely comfortable for anyone. The danger is that when one person’s survival instinct is triggered, the people around them are vulnerable to their own survival instinct triggering in return. If you’ve ever watched a school of fish, you’ve seen how they can all suddenly turn right or left, up or down in a synchronized way. We, too, are responsive to environmental factors around us – especially to each other. Communication is largely based on non-verbal cues and humans are acutely sensitive to reading them in one another.
Learning how to be non-emotional and responsive without being reactive is critical in dealing with high pressure situations. There are ways to diffuse these behaviors and also ways to predict them coming. The next time you run into fight, flight, or freeze behavior, try to remember that it doesn’t mean the person who is experiencing it is bad or wrong. It simply means that the person is under more pressure than they can manage at the moment.
Natural Principle #9:
Even though it is natural to want to get along with the people we care about, inside every person there is also a reflex to oppose. This reflex comes from nature and is important for survival. Imagine if an alligator took hold of a lion at the drinking hole. The lion would pull the opposite way of the alligator and he would pull as hard as he could. If the lion didn't resist the alligator's grasp and react in a split second, even though he's the king of the jungle, the lion would be toast.
Opposition Reflex triggers when a person is under more pressure than they are comfortable with. Instead of going with the flow or getting with the program, this reflex kicks in and causes them to do the opposite. "I was going to do what you wanted, but now that you've pushed too hard, I'm not budging." You might hear it referred to as an adult being resistant, a teenager being rebellious, or a child having 'attitude.' Regardless of what we call it, it all stems from the same source.
It can be tempting to want to handle another person's opposition by applying even more pressure. "Oh yeah? You will do what I say." However, since opposition reflex triggers from too much pressure in the first place, adding even more pressure often makes things worse. The attitude worsens or the tantrum escalates. In the natural world, it's the hunted animal's job to frustrate the hunter and the more pressure they're under, the more frustrating to the hunter they'll instinctively become. In the natural world, their very life depends on it.
Rather than getting frustrated yourself and adding more fuel to the fire, what works best is to take the pressure off. Remember that behavior is motivated by needs being met. Rather than applying more force, think in terms of meeting this person's need for comfort. It is counter-intuitive, but as if by magic, you will likely experience a person's attitude improving and their behavior responding favorably. This dynamic is supported by another Natural Principle: Pressure Motivates But It's The Release of Pressure That Teaches.
Natural Principle #10:
Pressure Motivates But It's The Release of Pressure That Teaches
When it comes to influencing another person's behavior, most people are clear that pressure motivates. We say things like, "We need to discipline the children," or "We need to talk." Taking action toward an outcome and addressing it, creates a certain amount of pressure. How much pressure is present depends on how intense you are in your delivery as well as how the other person perceives you. Some people are very sensitive to pressure and others can tolerate more. There is no right or wrong amount of pressure so long as you are careful to never force, be abusive, or harm someone else. When in doubt, less is more.
What most people don't realize, however, is that it's the release of pressure that teaches. The release is how the nervous system learns. If you release pressure at the correct time, the nervous system gets a signal, "Phew, I got the answer right." People prefer to be comfortable more than uncomfortable, so when a person learns how to reliably find a "safe spot" where there is relief from pressure, they are likely to repeat whatever behavior caused it. Releasing pressure at the wrong time, or not releasing pressure at all, gives the nervous system mixed signals and causes problems.
For example, if you grounded your kid for the weekend and then forget they were grounded, so you let them go to their friend's house, their nervous system will get the release at the wrong time. What did grounding them and then forgetting about it teach them? Depending on how often you release pressure at the wrong time, they may come to believe that your word doesn't mean anything. Conversely, making a person wrong at every turn so that they can never get away from your pressure will either shut them down or prime them to have an emotional explosion. It's important to always allow a person a way to find a release.
So how can understanding that pressure motivates but it's the release of pressure that teaches benefit you? When interacting with someone, be sure to always give them an opening. There has got to be an option available that allows them to find a release from the pressure they are feeling. This allows them to feel safe and feel that they can succeed with you. In my opinion, learning to correctly time the release is much more important than learning more and different ways to apply ever-increasing forms of pressure.
Now you have an introduction in how working in harmony with Natural Principles is a secret to having happy, long-lasting relationships. I've shared ten principles here, but there are plenty more worth learning. If you'd like to learn more, or if you want help in applying the ones I've mentioned, I'd encourage you to begin with reading, Get All Your Relationships Right. Learning is only as good as what you can apply in real-life circumstances. This book moves you through one lesson at a time, with exercises to apply to your relationships. The positive changes you will experience can happen very quickly and normally deepen over time. Email me and let me know if you'd like me to provide a free question/answer call each month.
More than anything else, I want you to be successful with the people you love and care about. People prefer comfort over discomfort, so I hope you will find this to be a place that is comfortable for you and that provides you with whatever help you need.
To your success,