Focus On Their Behavior, Not Your Opinion

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on January 14, 2013

Will Work For ChangeIf you’re going to tell someone about a problem, you will be well served to make a distinction between what they do (their actual behavior) and your reaction to it (your thoughts, words and feelings about their behavior).

Behavior is observable, reportable, predictable.  Opinions are individualized because we interpret what we see and hear through a lens of understanding that includes all of our previous opinions and experiences.)  So two people observing the same behavior may have two different reactions to it.

For example, if you don’t take it personally when people yell, you might become amused, fascinated, or intrigued and curious about what set them off.  But if your experience of people yelling is that they have power over you and might do you harm, or a rule in your life that says “people who yell are fundamentally incapable of emotional maturity) then you will interpret their yelling accordingly.

By switching to a behavioral focus, your opinions and experiences have less sway over you, and you may wind up more flexible and resourceful.  Then you can tell the person, “When you look at me that way” and describe their behavior rather than your opinion about it, you may be able to guide them to self awareness rather than reacting to your reactions or having opinions about your opinions.

Let’s say that you’re dealing with a person who, for whatever reason, has trouble keeping their word (usually it’s fear to be honest with you, or some disorganization in their own life that interferes with their good intentions).

On the one hand, you could try to shame them or embarrass them, “I can’t count on you for anything!”  Or, instead, you could tell them, “You said you’d be here, and you weren’t.  I’m sure you meant to be here, but here’s the problem.  I’ve made commitments to others based on the promises you’ve made to me.  So when you say you’re going to show up and then you don’t show up, or when you say you’ll pick me up and then don’t pick me up,  I wind up wondering what’s going on with you, and the people counting on me get to hear me making excuses involving you.  That isn’t good for either of us.  Here’s what I want in the future:  If you make a promise to me, I need to know that you’re also making that promise to yourself, and that you will do whatever you must to keep it.  Or else I need  you to tell me when you’re hoping rather than commiting to do something, and I will adjust my promises to others accordingly.”

Your comments and feedback are welcome below,

Be well,


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