How to get people to act like behavior analysts.

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By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

When I discovered behavior analysis, I was really, really excited.  I’ve recounted the story elsewhere, but basically I was thrilled that this group of people had a fully articulated and researched system concerning all of these things I had been thinking.  I started telling my family and friends all about what I was learning, how great it was, and trying to get them on board with my new way of talking about and looking at the world.  It didn’t work.  Friends argued with me and relatives said, “that’s nice,” (in a way that felt more like, “aw, that’s cute”).  Me, tired of being misunderstood and not really happy with my life, transferred out of the satellite program I was in and into a full-time, on ground program at the University of Nevada (go Wolfpack!) so I could be with people who got it.  And together we plotted how to have others “get it” and complained that they didn’t. 

From the looks of it, those conversations are still going on.  What can we do to make others “get it,” and isn’t it terrible that they don’t?  But I don’t participate anymore.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  First, I just don’t think it’s ever going to work.  Explaining it without pointing to my thoughts and feelings as cause, I would say, “my behavior extinguished.”  Second, I’m less convinced that it even really matters if the rest of the world sees things my or not.  For example, an engineer has a very different view of the world than I do, and I have no doubt that when she looks at the world and the people in it, she has a way of understanding things that I could barely comprehend.  Having no understanding of those things, however, doesn’t stop me from using all of the wonderful things that engineers have put together and built.  In fact, they’ve done a wonderful job of building them so that that someone with no understanding of the science behind them can effectively use them.  That I am able to sit here typing this is a miracle to me.  There is no mechanical connection between the keyboard I am using and the screen where the words appear.  Amazing! 

Thankfully, the inventors and engineers who made this possible didn’t think it was important that I see things their way before designing something that would let me do this.  They were only interested in making the technology accessible so that I could do what I wanted with it.  I think we could probably take a lesson from them.  With that in mind, here are a few practices that I think could make a difference in having people adopt our practices and start applying what we know to start solving some of the world’s problems. 

Use plain language. – It strikes me that if I weren’t a behavior analyst, and I were listening to a bunch of behavior analysts talk, I would think, “what a bunch of weirdos.”  From the outside, we say really strange things in really complicated ways.  I was talking with a friend the other day and she said, “my dog jumped on the table to access the edible.”  That’s an interesting and complicated way of saying, “he got the food.”  And to a non-behavior analyst (i.e., almost everyone), it’s probably a really confusing way to say it.   We use a language that is confusing to people, and I think they often feel stupid around us, which turns people off.  We should be looking for ways to make people feel smart around us. 

One thing I do in management trainings is, when I present positive and negative reinforcement, I say “we’re going to set those terms aside.  They confuse me once in a while.  So instead of positive and negative, we’re going to talk about why we do things in terms of ‘gets,’ ‘gets rid of,’ and ‘prevents.’”  What I find when I do this is that people get right on board in beginning to look for the consequences maintaining behavior, they start to find them easily, and they seem to have fun doing it.  And then there are always a few who then get interested in taking that extra step and work to learn the technical terms. 

Validate other perspectives. – This is a really tough one, because the natural thing to do when you have access to such a powerful and useful system of thinking is to treat it as though it is the one right way to look at things.  Then, when someone has a different way of looking at things that think is the right way, it’s very easy to get in an argument about who is right.  I don’t want to get into the “why that is” of it here, but it’s a human tendency to see my “way of viewing things” as “who I am,” and then get threatened by differing views.  Then we’ll argue about who is right, and take our eye off what we wanted to use this view for. 

What we often forget is that our way of looking at the world is just a bunch of behavior, and their way of looking at the world is just a bunch of behavior.  Since each is a product of the contingencies of reinforcement, on a certain level, each view is 100% valid.  After all, there is nothing right or wrong about the contingencies of reinforcement, they simply are (assuming that the contingencies of reinforcement have led you to look at the world from that perspective!). 

Let people have their perspective.  I usually start trainings with an assertion that none of what I am about to say is the hard and fast truth, but instead is a way of looking at things that might be useful in being a better leader.  Then as we get into the causes of behavior, people invariably bring up personality, heredity, and thoughts and feelings as possible causes.  Whenever those come up I say, “Sure, and that’s valid.  There’s a lot of really interesting research exploring all of those things.  As a leader though, you don’t have a lot of control over people’s personality or heredity, so for our purposes we’re going deal with the environment.”  In my experience, when I validate someone’s perspective and draw them back to why we would take this perspective, they’re very willing to jump in and play around with the concepts. 

See things their way. – This one might be the hardest of all.  If you’re in an IEP meeting, what’s really easy to forget is that you all want what’s best for the client.  You may disagree about what’s best, and when you do, it may start to look like the person sitting across from you isn’t really interested in what’s best for the client.  After all, your approach is clearly the best!  You have years of training, tons of data, and a lot of very smart people telling you it’s the best!  Going back to the previous point, the contingencies of reinforcement tell you you’re right.  Only a monster would argue otherwise! 

Well, no.  Remember, the person disagreeing with you isn’t a monster.  They’re a person operating in the only way their history will allow them to.  If you give up your opinion on the right and wrong ways to access reinforcement, what you may find is that you’re both after the same reinforcer – what’s best for the client.  If you start from the assumption that they are, in fact, working for the client’s best interest, and keep remembering that, it should provide a ground from which you can effectively communicate.  Additionally, let them know that you can see their commitment to doing what’s best.  While you’ve forgotten that they want what’s best for the client, they’ve done the same thing to you.  Acknowledging and appreciating their commitment will allow them a little freedom in also seeing things from another perspective. 

My all time favorite personal example of this occured when I was canvassing voters in Nevada (a swing state), during the 2008 election.  If you haven’t lived in a swing state during an election, let me tell you about it.  You are absolutely pummeled with advertisements, mailings, phone-calls, and people knocking on your door.  It can get overwhelming and really try people’s patience.  That’s what I was dealing with when I walked into an apartment complex with a walled-courtyard and was confronted with three women, one of whom immediately started yelling at me: “NO!  GO AWAY!!  YOU PEOPLE HAVE BEEN THROUGH HERE THREE TIMES TODAY ALREADY!  WE’RE SICK OF YOU!  GET OUT OF HERE!!”  And I did. 

As I left, I looked at the 12 or so names on my list who lived at the complex and wondered what I would tell the campaign worker, to whom I had given my word that I would knock on all of these doors.  I took a deep breath, and I walked back into the complex.  As I did, the same woman went into an attack stance as I said, “Look, I know this is really annoying and you’re feeling bombarded, and I really appreciate that you’re looking out for everyone here, and I said I would talk to these people, so I’m going to knock on these doors.” 

Her behavior changed immediately.  Her shoulders relaxed and she said, “Ok, whose on your list?”  As I went over the names with her, she told me who was home, who wasn’t, and that I shouldn’t knock on that door because that guy works nights and he’ll be sleeping right now.  And when I got to her name, she answered all my questions and thanked me.   She ended up saving me a lot of time, and it was out of the fact that I realized, fundamentally, we were both coming from the same place: the interests of the people living in her apartment complex. 

Don’t lose sight of what’s important. – None of this means that you should stop being a behavior analyst.  Though I don’t think it’s necessary to confuse people with terms like “negative and positive reinforcement,” “edibles and tangibles,” and the “function of behavior,” there are things I think, that if you dropped them out, would be really selling out on a science of behavior – things like taking reliable data and basing our decisions on them, our commitment to effective treatment outcomes, and tackling socially significant problems (sorry if I left out your favorite). 

I do think (and hopefully, time will tell) that if we, as behavior analysts got less concerned about having people think and speak like us, and more concerned simply with having them adopt our practices, we will make great strides in building a world that really works. 

Scott Herbst Six FlexScott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at www.SixFlexTraining.com, or email at scott@sixflextraining.com for more information.

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5 Comments on "How to get people to act like behavior analysts."

  1. Dear Scott,

    Thank you for this illuminating article. Your comments about using simple language instead of confusing behavioral terms are very helpful, especially the terms ‘gets,’ ‘gets rid of,’ and ‘prevents.’ These help people visualize what’s happening. Great ideas and easy to implement! I plan to start using these today.

  2. I so appreciate this article. Thank you for the permission to speak in simple vs technical terms. Learning and attempting to use our terms can be isolating and lonely, even with others with similar training whose verbosity had a competitive quality. The fact that it seems the general public and popular media hesitate not to weigh in as experts on behavioral topics only adds to the experience. I am comforted by the reminder that our expertise in focusing on socially significant behavior using data collection,
    and data driven decisions sets us apart to connect and join – not to isolate. Thank you Scott.

  3. I am an educator first and a behavior analyst second. I have always worked with pre-service and in-service teachers to understand the principles of behavior analysis by using “teacher talk”. It’s much more relatable and digestible.

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