Quit focusing on “what not to do”

As a father of two young kids, I realized that I have been doing one thing wrong till now. Which is to instruct my kids “what not to do” rather than telling them “what to do”. With all the good intentions, I would always tell them “don’t do this” and “don’t do that”. Better late than never. It is natural to ask what’s wrong with focusing on the “what not to do” ?

This situation is very relevant at home and at work. We keep talking about the “What not to do” or “Lessons Learned” or infamously bring in the checklists to highlight what is NOT done.

The more I observed people’s behavior (including that of my own), the more determined was I to stop focusing on the “What not to do”.

Why we focus on “What not to do”

When interacting with kids at home or with colleagues at work, we are working with people who have different knowledge and understanding levels. This creates a knowledge gap on what they know and what you want to convey. The shortcut to bridge the gap is to instruct people saying “don’t do this” and stop that specific behavior.

We all have busy lives and convincing someone to do right thing and educating them takes a lot of patience and time. This means, even if we know what is right, we focus on what we don’t expect or appreciated.

Why we should focus on “What to do”

This does couple of things to us. First, this makes us consciously think and realize what is the right thing to do. For every action that you dont want others to do, you would think of the expected behavior. Two, a positive affirmation always have progressive effect compared to the negative instruction. Behaviorally people are stuck when you talk about “what not to do”. i.e. The question remains the same for them, if what I did is wrong then what is right?

Alternative approach is to talk about what to do and the side effects (negative or unintended) of their action. e.g. If your kid is not walking on the walkway then say “Please comeback on the walkway for you to be safer” instead of “don’t go there”. If you observe, it’s simple and easy to provide the negative feedback (short words or sentences) and affirmations than the positive feedback (typically long sentences). Same philosophy applies at work too.

In summary, we are hardwired to do things that people tell us not to do. We find it more challenge to do things that are not meant to be. One way to induce the good/expected behavior is to always reiterate what one should do to bring in the positive effect.

<cross posted from my LinkedIn post>

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