As I mentioned recently, I’ve just got a puppy. Don’t worry, not all of my posts will be about the most perfect bundle of fur you’ve ever seen in your life, but I’m afraid this one will be. Kind of!
This week we’ve been thinking a lot about training. If you have a dog, it’s incredibly important that you make sure that it’s properly trained. Obviously, I’ve been talking to similarly pooch-oriented friends to find out what worked for them, and any pitfalls we might experience. One of the biggest things that has been highlighted is the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’.
This is the idea that we get what we reward, not necessarily what we’re hoping for.
A friend of mine had a perfect example of this.
She has both an adult cat and a 1 year old puppy. The dog has developed a habit of lying in the doorway which connects the kitchen with the rest of the house. The cat, quite understandably, wants to move through the door without having her head licked by an affectionate, but not very bright hound. The cat’s solution is to ‘meow’ loudly for as long as it takes to summon humans to distract the dog and allow her the time to get past.
So far, so good. We see a problem and a solution.
The difficulty arises when the dog realises that lying there and pestering the cat when she walks past is the perfect way to get attention and tummy rubs. Now you have a situation where the dog wants attention so he lies in the way of the cat, who becomes miserable and summons the humans to help, who then have to distract the dog, reassure the cat and grumble about how they had better things to do than play lollypop lady to an ungrateful feline.
It really is the little old lady who swallowed a fly!
These unintended consequences can be found everywhere, from meetings with colleagues to government targets.
We get what we reward, not what we wanted.
The natural reaction when this happens is to blame the other party. We’re sure that they know what we would actually like. It feels deliberately obstructive to give us something else. When you realise that this happens with pets, however, the real source of the problem is harder to deny.
With a dog, it is only ever the human’s fault. If my dog ‘misbehaves’, that’s on me. He might not understand what I want him to do or I might not have given him sufficient motivation to do it. If he’s deliberately ‘acting up’, it’s almost certainly because he’s bored, meaning that I should have given him more exercise or attention. Because I have complete control of his environment, I also have to take full responsibility.
This isn’t always the easiest thing to keep in mind, especially when he’s just chewed through the TV remote and a new pair of running shoes. Accepting responsibility for something that you really didn’t want is uncomfortable, but it’s the first step to taking making changes. When we accept that the only thing that we can change is our own behaviour, we start to look for ways that we can influence the situation.
For me, this is a 3 step process…
- I examine the result I’m getting and ask what I was doing that made that more likely?
- I compare this with the result I would like to get, and try to find ways to motivate that more directly.
- I monitor what changes as a result of me altering my behaviour and re-start from Step 1 until I’m happy that I’m getting it right.
In NLP terms, this is the TOTE model (Test, Operate, Test, Exit).
I’m not going to pretend that this works in absolutely every situation, or that it’s easy, but it’s a great first step.
This also ties into so many of the personal qualities that we value; being self-aware, taking responsibility, being proactive and thoughtful.
When it works, we can internalise new, more helpful behaviour patterns which generalise to other situations. And, most importantly, we don’t have to buy new running shoes every couple of weeks because of a bored canine companion!