Top Ten Interpersonal Skills – 8 – Project And Expect The Best
The key to bringing out the best in people is to let them know that you recognize and appreciate them, even when their actions seem to indicate that they don’t appreciate themselves. In fact, you can project a positive value on someone behaving badly, and if they prefer your projection, they may claim it instead.
This is the power of positive projection. It’s based on the fact that most people rise or fall to the level of your expectations and projections. This phenomenon has been used by exceptional teachers to turn average students into exceptional ones, by loving wives to turn angry husbands into loving ones, and by managers to turn poorly performing employees into stellar ones.
When you talk to someone like they are capable of better than they are behaving, they tend to rush to behave in a way that makes that projection true.
And the way this works is you assume the best about someone’s values, then project those values on them in the way you talk with them, with the result that you get the best possible result with them. Click!
I heard of an interesting study many years ago in the Chicago school system that sheds light on the power of expectations. The researchers conducting the experiment asked a few teachers for their assistance. The teachers were told that they were picked because of their teaching abilities, and that gifted children were to be placed in their classes. The experiment was designed, the researchers explained, to find out how gifted children would perform in school if they did not know they were gifted. Neither the children nor the parents would be told of the experiment.
The result: The scholastic performance of the children, as the teachers expected, was exceptional. The teachers told the researchers that working with the children had been a delight, and expressed the wish that they could work with gifted children all the time. Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers that the children were not necessarily gifted, since they were chosen at random from all the students in the Chicago school system! Before the teachers could get swelled heads about their own gifts, the researchers informed them that they, too, were chosen at random.
The researchers called this remarkable performance outcome the “Pygmalion Effect” in the classroom. The teachers’ high expectations for the students, though never officially expressed, helped the students to believe in themselves and act accordingly. Other studies have similarly revealed that to some degree, people rise or fall to the level of other’s expectations.
Perhaps you have experienced the difficulty in overcoming someone’s negative opinion of you, where in spite of your best efforts, anything you said or did was distorted into something else. Parents use Pygmalion Power whenever they tell their children, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times! You’re messy /clumsy /a liar / a slob/ you don’t care about anyone but yourself!” This mechanism can be utilized, instead, to bring out the best even in people at their worst. Wise parents will find it far more valuable to tell their children “That’s not like you! You care about your appearance /you know how to take care of your things / you’re a loving and honest person / you know we love you / you are capable of doing anything you put your mind to!”
When your difficult person is engaging in their problem behavior, you may be tempted to think or say “That’s the problem with you. You always ,” or “You never .” To use Pygmalion Power effectively, learn to say “That’s not like you! You’re capable of ” and describe how you want them to be as if they truly are capable of living up to your description. And whenever your difficult person behaves in a manner that you would like to see repeated, learn to say “That’s one of the things I like about you. You ” and describe their positive behavior as a way of reinforcing their identification with it.
Barb had been married to Ken for several years. Ken had a terrible temper. Sullie was one of those people to whom home is where you go when you’re tired of being nice to people. As soon as he walked in the door, he would unload all his frustration about work on Barb.
Barb honestly asked herself if she wanted to leave the relationship and decided she didn’t. She resolved then and there to change her own behavior in order to change the situation. That evening, when her husband walked in the door and began his habitual outpouring of anguish, she raised her voice loud enough for him to hear and said, “Sullie, that’s not like you!”—even though it was! She continued, “You know we don’t deserve this. You’re the kind of man who cares about his family, and I know you would never want to upset us intentionally.” Her remark caught Sullie by surprise. Not knowing how to respond, he spun around and left the house, coming back home a little later and keeping to himself.
Barb continued to greet his temper tantrums with these kinds of statements, and after about three weeks, a remarkable thing happened. Sullie walked in the house upset about a day at the office, but before she could say a word to him, he held up his hand to silence her, and nodded his head: “I know, I know. That’s not like me!” He laughed, she laughed, and that was the end of the negative behavior pattern. Her use of Pygmalion Power changed their lives.
I realize that Pygmalion Power is not the easiest thing to use when someone is acting like a jerk. You may have to spend some time mentally rehearsing it before you’re able to talk this way with ease. You may have to force yourself to hope that they have it in them to change, when no evidence of such an ability is apparent. Yet, we have no doubt that you can surprise yourself delightfully with your power to bring out the best in people at their worst.
Assume the Best, Give the Benefit of the Doubt
Jim was an engineer facing a crushing deadline. He had retreated to his office in the hopes of getting some quiet time to concentrate on getting the work done. Yet here was Kurt, a fellow engineer, sitting in his guest chair giving him advice about the project. The advice was nothing Jim needed. He just needed to be left alone. If Jim said, “Look, Kurt, I don’t have time for this right now.” Kurt might leave thinking, “Fine! Last time I try to help him out.” But instead Jim said, “Kurt I really appreciate your willingness to help me out on this project, with your time and your ideas.” To which Kurt proudly said, “Anything for a pal.” Then Jim continued, “What would really help me out, at this point, is if I could be alone for a while, so I can focus my attention. Would you do that for me?” And of course Kurt said, “Sure. No problem.”
Assuming the best can have a positive effect on a problem person, whether it’s true or not. In the last example Kurt may not have been trying to help. Maybe he was sitting in Jim’s office avoiding something he didn’t feel like working on. But when Jim acknowledges the positive intent of Kurt trying to help him, Kurt is not going to say, “Help you? Nah, you got me all wrong, Jim. I am just sitting here wasting your time while I procrastinate on what I don’t feel like doing.”
Whenever you tell a person they are doing something wrong, they will get defensive. You minimize defensiveness in another person by giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best.
I sure appreciate the emails, tweets, and facebook messages you leave for me in response to these posts. But you know what I like best about you? You’re the kind of person that, after reading a post, thinks of something to say back, right here on the blog. That’s why your comments are always welcome!
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.