The other morning I was coffeeing with a group of friends when we were joined by an acquaintance of one of the group.
The new arrival sat down at our table and over the course of his twenty minute stay, regaled us with one sexist, racist joke after another.
This was not his first time “crashing” our party and, just like the previous times, we had laughed politely at his feeble attempts at humour.
When he finally left, we did what we had done on each previous occasion. We discussed the inappropriateness of his behaviour and comments were exchanged like, “I wish he would stop that,” and “doesn’t he realize his jokes aren’t funny?”
Of course, human nature being what it is, these comments were being directed at him in his absence and he would never know of them.
It wasn’t until someone asked “why doesn’t someone say something to him?” that a light went on in my head and I realized that we were saying something to him.
By our silence in not telling him to stop, and by even occasionally laughing at his jokes, we were telling him that we were an appreciative audience and were even tacitly encouraging him to continue.
Huh? How is that possible?
Aubrey Daniels PhD., one of my favourite authors and the man whose writing has influenced so much of my thinking, teaches us about the incredible effect of consequences.
A consequence, as you know, is that which follows a behaviour and therefore there is no such thing as a behaviour without a consequence.
Dr. Daniels, says that consequences “alter the probability of a behaviour being repeated.” and that if you want to change behaviour it is necessary to change the consequences that follow it.
That’s powerful stuff. Read it again.
We’re all familiar with the term ‘positive reinforcement’. Dr. Daniels defines positive reinforcement as “getting what you want,” a reward.
Ok, so back to our foul-mouthed, not too bright friend.
At the moment that light went on in my head I realized that all of us at the coffee table were complicit in encouraging this guy to continue his errant behaviour.
I remembered that “people treat us the way we train them to treat us,” and that each time we laughed at his joke we were positively reinforcing his behaviour. We were altering the probability of hearing more jokes from him. We were increasing that probability.
We were giving him what he wanted. We were rewarding him by laughing at his jokes. And each time we laughed, we were training him to continue.
And what about those times when we didn’t laugh? When we didn’t respond at all?
Well, another powerful lesson for us is that the absence of critical feedback – our saying nothing at all – is a form of positive reinforcement, so even when we kept quiet we were motivating him.
What we should have done was give him feedback the very first time he opened his mouth. We should have told him that we felt his humour to be inappropriate and not welcome at our table.
Of course we didn’t do that. Being the conflict averse humans that we are, we reserved our criticism for when he had left.
How many times have you done the same thing? How often have you been offended by inappropriate behaviour and said nothing to the offender? Do you realize now the degree by which your silence has made you complicit when he reoffends?’
It’s never easy to confront another person, but each time you choose not to, remember the word ‘consequences’.
It’s worth thinking about.
Another time we’ll discuss why we so often choose to say nothing even when we feel angry.
Oh, before I forget, did I tell you the one about …
Till we read again.