Harnessing Habits To Improve Communication

There’s an experiment where people are blindfolded and presented with a lab-made funky smell. Some people are told it’s a pair of gross gym shocks and they say “eww” and grimace. Others are told the smell is from an aged-cheese and they start to salivate as they really breathe it in. It’s the same smell but it inspires very different responses. The experiment shows how we humans are extremely susceptible to framing, presentation, and the many habits we’ve spent our life forming and maintaining. Besides being in blindfolded experiments, we have similar experiences all of the time.

Dr. Jud Brewer recently spoke with David McRaney about this experiment and the relation to his work on habits. Brewer offers a broader definition of habits than most of us probably are using. He defines a habit as a “special or regular tendency, especially one that is hard to give up.” Habits aren’t just nail-biting and daily exercise routines, they’re also how we smell cheese and gym socks. He explains how habits occur in loops that have a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. They aren’t inherently good or bad, so much as they are mostly automatic responses.

Habits are a form of motivated behavior, but less in the motivational speaker sense and more in the brain chemical sense. We experience something that resolves a discomfort and our brains remember it. These chemical reactions drive our lives. Bored? Check social media. Funny smell? Cheese is great, gym socks are gross. Slow day at home near the snack cabinet? Maybe have just one snack, (or three). Each occurs in a loop, and each is hard to give up.

There are practical ways we can put an understanding of habits to professional use. When we engage with clients we can be extra aware of the loops and patterns they use to resolve discomfort within their world. A key insight from Brewer’s research is that once we become mindful of a habit, we can interrupt, front-run, or even exploit it. This is true for our habits and those of others. While anything can be used for good or nefarious reasons here (this is influence we’re talking about after all), it represents a key step in making communication stick.

For example, think of a client who occasionally gets very nervous. Everyone has methods for dealing with uncertainty in various aspects of their lives that we may not be aware of. A little probing and regular conversation can uncover the habits they already use to cope (and we’re looking for the positive ones, obviously). I know a person who watches the news every day but is prone to panic from time to time. Her typical response is to emotionally react to some particular story, shut the news off and disengage for a few days. Prior to unplugging, she’s all worked up. A day or so after, she’s thinking rationally. Since she’s also well-informed from the news watching habit, this unplugged time is also a great time for her to be productive.

Working with her professionally, if I can sense a stress trigger at the same time as her or even in advance, a proactive call reminding her to unplug for a little bit and that we should talk soon can go a very, very long way. This is an example of how one can harness the power of habit to improve the outcome for another person.

Habits are everywhere. As professionals, the better we understand and are mindful of them, the more impactful we can be.

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