Modeling Behavior to Change the Story
Our first son was slow with words, and fast with walking and climbing. He was pulling himself up stairs before he was actively crawling and could climb walls as soon as he could walk, literally; he climbed walls using the baseboard to begin his ascent.
When he was a year old, I noticed that when I handed him something or helped him with something, he would say "dee-dah" in a sing-song voice "dee-dah!" It was different from his "da", which meant he wanted something, that word sounded like "that." He didn't have words or sentences, but if you have experience with little children, you know sometimes you can understand certain phrases before they sound like words.
I called my mother and she heard him say "dee-dah" when I handed him a cracker. "What is he saying?" I told her I didn't know. She said "it sounds like he's saying thank you!" “Maybe, mom; that might be what he’s saying.” I decided to test her theory. For the rest of the day, I paid more attention as I handed him food or something else he asked for. He absolutely was using that phrase in the correct context for thank you. I called my mother later that day to tell her she was right. I said: “I didn't know he knew that phrase! I hadn't been working with him on that one, though I we definitely worked on please.
“He is saying that because he hears you saying that to people, and he hears you and his father saying that to each other.”
What a great thing to hear from someone you respect and admire, right? It felt pretty good, in terms of being confident in my parenting, to know our son was picking up what I think is a really good habit – pleases and thank yous. I felt just a tiny bit smug about my parenting.
I became a bit more aware and intentional about what I was saying around him after that, but wasn’t entirely aware, which is why I was caught off-guard a year or so later at a grocery store.
I was visiting family in the Baltimore area, and my cousin and I took Jacob along to pick up some groceries. They had that new grocery cart with the truck front and basket back, so kids could pretend they were driving. When we walked in and Jacob saw it, his eyes brightened and he pointed to ask if we could take that cart. “Of course”, I said; it was such a great idea, and we didn’t have those carts in Montana yet.
It was seconds after he got in to drive, and I started to push the cart toward the produce, when he said very loudly:
“Come ON, buddy!”
I blushed and glanced over at my cousin, laughing, and she said: “It could have been worse, right?” That was when I realized how much of what we were saying and doing made impressions on our children. If you have children, I’m sure you have those embarrassing stories of them sharing things they heard that you were mortified to hear them share.
Years ago, I had a boss who was a skilled manipulator. She is very smart, and very ambitious, but not confident or comfortable in her skin. She treated me with incredible cruelty, figuring out my most sensitive anxieties and poking them regularly. It was a horrible 2+ years, but not just because of the abuse. I made it worse because I found I was behaving like she behaved, and I started to seriously dislike myself. She was modeling her abusive behavior, and I was picking it up like my children picked up MY cues.
It hadn’t occurred to me before that experience that even as adults, we’re constantly observing the people around us and picking up their subtle behavioral cues. Some with in intention – others… not so much.
When visiting a friend’s house last summer, I thanked her for hosting our small group of friends, and let her know how lovely the snacks looked on the serving plates.
“That’s something I picked up from you and Bob! Every time I come to your house, even unannounced, you have something nice to put out and you always offer me a drink shortly after I walk in the door. I love that, and realized I wanted people to feel at my house the way I feel when I’m at yours.”
Ah... My brain started to focus on what her compliment meant to me, beyond the honor of being emulated for something I love to do, and find great satisfaction in – hosting people. It took me a while to process what I heard, and to apply it to a bigger theory.
As I’ve said many times, in relation to customer service and personal brand, we are all ambassadors for our people. How we behave around others is watched, and though it’s not fair, our behavior is often associated with different aspects of our visible presence. At any given moment, I’m representing women, mothers, Montanans, Jews, and whatever else my appearance and speech may give away.
What I present to the world can have a positive or negative impact on others like me. There aren’t many Jewish people here in Montana, and I’ve heard more than once “you don’t LOOK Jewish” and “I met a Jewish guy once, he was such an asshole”, and my favorite - because it’s so absurd: “I LOVE Jewish people!”
Those interactions and how I handle them can be the difference between this person passing along their bias or bigotry – or not.
Another thing I’ve noticed that relates to this idea of being an ambassador:
We are role models for the people around us – and not just children.
People watch how we behave, and when they see something they like, they may internalize that behavior and emulate it. Sometimes it’s a subconscious response, like the way our facial expressions often mirror those of the person in front of us. And sometimes, like my friend who loved being hosted at my house emulating that at her house, it’s very intentional.
When I observe a particularly impressive handling of conflict by someone, I’ll process it for a little while to figure out if I can emulate that response. And when I had young children, I watched other mothers to see what worked, and what I definitely DID NOT want to emulate.
What we do, how we behave, matters.
If we want to see things change in the world, and I believe from the many rants and stories I read every day online that we do, we have to start with us.
As a public employee, I received many calls like this: “My neighbor wakes me up at 6am on Saturday by mowing his lawn! Isn’t there a noise ordinance?”
“Yes, there’s a noise ordinance, and from 6am – 11pm, the limit is 55 decibels. But rather than call the police to come measure the noise, have you considered approaching your neighbor and asking why he’s mowing at 6am? Maybe he has a good reason, and maybe you can find a solution together. I find that when I approach my neighbors with respect, and rather than complain, ask questions to share the responsibility to find a solution, they respond really well.”
People are afraid of conflict. They don’t want to approach a neighbor or stranger, so they escalate the issue by calling the city or the police. Or they complain online, spewing negative energy and making things worse. They’re modeling that behavior to a huge audience.
Most of these situations could easily be resolved if we approached them with consideration and an open mind. Model the behavior you want to see, and people will notice the success you have in certain situations. And maybe, just maybe, that will be the beginning of a trend where, instead of adding to the negative energy, we can be proactive in finding solutions.
It’s not about being a Pollyanna, seeing only the positive, or being Facebook fake by sharing only the good stuff. It’s about choosing the behavior you want to see in the world around you, and demonstrating it.
If you want to be around people who are respectful and kind, smart and ambitious, model those behaviors. (Especially around people who DO NOT demonstrate those things. When you behave the way they behave, you’re condoning their behavior.)
If you want people around you to introduce themselves when they walk in the door, with a firm handshake and clearly enunciating their name, model that.
If you want people to hold the door open for you when your hands are full, let you into traffic when the lane ends, or give you space when walking across the street, DO THOSE THINGS.
If you want to hear please and thank you from people, say please and thank you.
If you want to change the negative tendencies online, don’t post or share that energy. There are always people who will try to bate you into that negative space. Don’t let them.