A Simple Formula for Changing Our Behavior

“Whoa! What are you doing?” I asked aghast.

I had just walked into my daughter’s room as she was working on a science project. Normally, I would have been pleased at such a sight. But this time, her project involved sand. A lot of it. And, while she had put some plastic underneath her work area, it wasn’t nearly enough. The sand was spreading all over our newly renovated floors.

My daughter, who immediately felt my displeasure, began to defend herself. “I used plastic!” she responded angrily.

I responded more angrily, “But the sand is getting all over!”

“Where else am I supposed to do it?” she yelled.

Why won’t she admit when she’s done something wrong? I thought to myself. I felt my fear, projecting into the future: What would her life look like if she couldn’t own her mistakes?

My fear translated into more anger, this time about how important it was for her to admit mistakes, and we spiraled. She said something that felt disrespectful to me and I raised my voice. She devolved into a crying fit.

I wish I could say this never happened before. But my daughter and I were in a dance, one we have, unfortunately, danced before. And it’s predictably painful; we both, inevitably, end up feeling terrible.

This is not just a parenting dance. I often see leaders and managers fall into predictable spirals with their employees. It usually starts with unfulfilled expectations (“what were you thinking?”) and ends in anger, frustration, sadness, and loss of confidence on both sides. Maybe not crying. But the professional equivalent.

I’m always inclined to ask: Why do I react the way I do? The answer is a complicated fusion of reasons including my love for my daughter, my desire to teach her, my low tolerance for messiness, my need to be in control, my longing for her success, and the list goes on.

But it doesn’t really matter.

Because knowing why I act a certain way does not change my behavior. You would think that it would. It should. But it doesn’t.

The question that really matters – the hard question – is how do I change?

First, I need a better way to respond to my daughter. For this, I went to my wife, Eleanor, who is truly a master. I asked her how I should have handled it.

“Sweetie,” she said, role playing me in the conversation with my daughter, “There’s a lot of sand here and we need to clean it up before it destroys the floors, how can I help?”

Simple and effective:

1. Identify the problem
2. State what needs to happen
3. Offer to help

That’s a great way to handle it. Think about any problem you face with someone at work. I don’t suggest you start the conversation with “Sweetie,” but the rest is applicable.

I watched a manager get angry at a direct report (we’ll call him Fred) for a sloppy, unclear presentation he gave. The manager was right — the presentation was unclear — but the way he responded damaged the employee’s confidence and Fred’s next effort wasn’t much better. Instead, he could have tried this:

“Fred, this presentation made six points instead of one or two. I’m left confused. It needs to be shorter, more to the point, and more professional looking. Would it help if we talk about the point you’re trying to make?”

No frustration. Not even disappointment. Just clarity and support.

Another time, I watched as a CEO got annoyed at his direct reports for presenting plans that were not reflective of the budget commitments they had made. His emotion was understandable. Appropriate, even. But not useful. An alternative might have been:

“Folks, these plans don’t reflect the budget numbers we agreed on. Those numbers are non-negotiable. If you want, you can let me know where you are getting stuck and we can brainstorm solutions.”

Identify the problem. State what needs to happen. Offer to help. Simple, right?

But – and this is the strange part — in my situation, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. As I thought about it, I realized my impediment.

It didn’t feel authentic.

I believe strongly in leading and living with authenticity. And I was angry and worried about my daughter’s future. So responding calmly, in that moment, would represent a disconnect between how I felt and how I acted. That’s inauthentic.

Which is when it hit me: Learning — by definition — will always feel inauthentic.

Practicing a new behavior, showing up in a new way, or acting differently, feels inauthentic. Changing a dance that’s been danced many times before will never feel natural. It will feel awkward, fake, like pretending. The hedge fund manager was angry, the CEO was annoyed. Not expressing those emotions feels fake.

But it’s much smarter, more likely to compassionately teach the people around us, and a better approach to getting them to reverse their ineffective behaviors.

If we want to learn, we need to tolerate the feeling of inauthenticity long enough to integrate the new way of being. Long enough for the new way of being to feel natural. Which, if the new way of being works, happens sooner than you would think.

Yesterday, my daughter was doing homework late at night and I had to ask her to work in the dining room instead of her bedroom because her younger sister needed to go to bed.

But, before I did, I paused. I empathized with the challenges she would feel, being asked to leave her room for her sister. Being asked to do her difficult homework in a place that wasn’t as comfortable.

“Sweetie,” I said, “Your sister needs to go to sleep and we need to move you into the dining room. How can I help?” Identify the problem, state what needs to happen, and offer to help.

It felt weird. Like I was being overly solicitous. Fake.

But it worked.

After I helped her move, she quickly got back to her work.

Then, as I was walking out, I heard her say “Dad?” I paused at the door and looked back at her. “Thanks,” she said, without looking up from her book.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. Linda says:

    I love this! Seems so simple, and yet change is hard for even the most change-oriented person. Especially when we feel vulnerable in giving it a try. I’m looking forward to the first chance I get to try the easy formula out in real-life, as I know I can do better in communicating my feelings, and my needs, in a way where both parties feel heard and supported.

    I am so glad I saw this today, and I truly loved it! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Karen says:

    Thanks, Peter! I enjoy reading your articles, and appreciate the perspective you bring. One distinction that I have found useful is the difference between expressing emotions and describing them. For people who feel inauthentic when they don’t express what they’re feeling, perhaps describing them instead is a way to move closer to the kind of response you’re describing. It makes a world of difference to simply say “I’m frustrated” vs. raising the voice, getting visibly annoyed, etc. Of course, still easier said than done, especially with our children!

    1. Peter Bregman says:

      Thanks for this addition Karen – I think it’s so true. It makes it easier to move forward when you acknowledge what you’re feeling and it’s a great example for the other person as well. Its defuses the situation without ignoring it’s impact on you. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jim Purvis says:

    Peter – thank you for this insight. It is human to feel .. and being authentic to those feelings is important to many. Karen – I totally agree with your added step of acknowledging the emotion you are feeling in the midst of Peter’s steps to approach a situation you come upon. Parent -child relationships are often the hardest for us – even those of us in the behavior change field – to face with grace.

  4. Barbara Sharp says:

    What a great article!! It’s so true that we always want to change the behaviours of the ‘other guy’ yet we fail to look inward. It’s so important to know ones own buttons in order that we can be so aware of them that we can adapt. I really like how you defined why it’s so hard to change our own behaviour…..it’s about feeling fake. Authenticity….yes, I like it. And yes, learning hurts. I remember when I am learning something my head hurts! That can be my sign to move forward. Thanks.

  5. Wendy says:

    Peter…. thank you for this article. And so many others, as well. What I immediately loved about this was your humanness… and that you, too, are not above ‘losing it’ when you feel frustrated or angry or another emotion that leads you to feeling out of control. You truly understand!
    I value your feedback, and you’re right… it’s not enough to ‘know’ why we do something. Your suggestions help with ‘how’ to make a change… or, at least, to try. Thank you for sharing your insights and experience.

  6. Peter, Great article! It evoked very touching emotions in me of selfless love and overcoming with your daughter. I love when the good and beauty of our humanity is the best answer to our business challenges. Thank you for your humility and transparency. I buy your books for myself and my five young adult children, as well as pass on many of your articles to them.

    In each example the”boss” expiernces strong emotions “on the spot” and doesn’t reflect/think before responding to the situation at hand. In your example with your daughter and her homework, you took time ahead of the confrontation to strategize with your new behavioral approach by ‘pausing and empathizing’ to bring your emotions under control and making a plan (thinking). You had the benefit of knowing the problem ahead of time. You brilliantly manipulated your own emotions with empathy, to then think from her mindset, on how to effectively approach her.

    These are two different situations. One without foreknowledge of a problem and one with it. Your behavioral strategy is excellent with foreknowledge of a problem. I would like you to address the issue from your examples of how to handle thesee unforseen emotions (disappointment and anger) and reactions (response behavior). I have some ideas, let me know if I can help.

  7. Darcie says:

    Peter, you do such a splendid job of conveying learning that’s applicable both in and out of the business world.

  8. Olga Soskic says:

    Hi Peter, thank you for this thought-provoking article.
    I hope I’m not oversimplifying the problem, but it seems to me that the difference between you and your wife in this situation is that she adopted the pragmatic approach of focusing on the task at hand (getting the sand off your newly renovated floors), while you jumped to the worst-case scenario of “mess on the floor = my daughter won’t admit to mistakes = she has no future”. Eleanor’s approach is effective because it is easier to target a change intervention at a specific issue (e.g. keep the floor clean), instead of trying to impose systemic change on a reluctant subject (e.g. alter your daughter’s personality by making her own up to mistakes – good luck with that, by the way!).

    1. Peter Bregman says:

      Thanks Olga – the distinction you’re making here is quite profound. I didn’t immediately see it but it’s really helpful now that I do – thanks for your insight and for sharing it.

  9. saleem says:

    What a coincidence, i am thinking to change my behavior these days to manage similar situations in a better way.Thanks for this Great Article!

  10. Paula says:

    Peter, Loved your article! I wanted to share an added perspective I’ve gained from raising my own two children: We don’t always speak as nicely to them as we would to an adult friend. Why is this? Strange logic perhaps…they’re just kids!

    But as your story illustrated, both kids and adults deserve the same respect and courtesy with regard to communication style. I think the Golden Rule applies here: Speak to others as you would like them to speak to you!

  11. Shalini says:

    Peter, Great Article. Needed this to guide myself while I deal with some people involved in the construction of my home.

  12. I loved this article, and actually applied the Identify the problem, State what needs to happen, and Offer to help steps in giving feedback today in 2 very different situations. One was with a colleague team in a team meeting , and one was with my 16 year old daughter. It was really effective in both situations. Thank you!

  13. Günther Mild says:

    Dear Peter,

    I enjoyed reading Your article. i found it through a crossreference from the Dailygood website. What i liked is Your sharing of a personal experience and challenge from Your daily life. Seeing successful people with daily struggles it encourages me to see each other and connect with each other in our humanity.

    I also like how You formulated clear steps and an algorithm usable in other situations.

    Here is more detailed discussion of the three steps

    Step one: i really enjoy this one-> a clear observable description of this situation (“Fred, this presentation made six points instead of one or two”) i am convinced, that the more clear the observation is, the more easier is for the listener to agree with it and be with the speaker on the same page (instead of having an inner reaction: “that´s not true” and getting into an inner defensiveness)

    Step two: “state what needs to be happen”. for me it is very valuable if somebody has a clear image what she/he wants (sadly often this is not the case especially if there is emotional tension). i also enjoy when the person who is talking with me takes responsibility for her/his own wishes (for e.g “After dinner i like to have clean dishes” opposed to “the dishes after dinner need to be washed” for me there is slight difference between these two regarding the vulnerability and responsibility of the speaker.)

    Step three: Offer to help this is a beautiful step as long as we have the resources to help. another thing what i like in this step is that, it creates space for togetherness (“we are in the same boat”). there are also times when it is really about distributing tasks and we need support others, thats why we request them.

    I see this is a way more effecient steps then bursting out with anger on the person who did what he/she did. What i am longing for is also the inclusion of the inner experience and wishes of other person in a more collaborative way.
    For me the message behind these three steps are something in this direction:
    “You did something what i dont like. I want you to do instead the following step(s). If you want, i can help”
    Such a message for me dosent includes the possibility that the other person also wants something by her/his choice.

    What i am longing for is something in the following direction:

    step one observation based description of the situation,
    step two curiosity and acknowledging what is the intention/wish for the other person behind the chosen behavior
    step three expressing our dislike about the situation and the “why” (often it is not so obvious for the other person)
    step for expressing our possible solutions suggestions being open for other solutions what works for both of us

    In this way, as Miki Kashtan would say: we are holding the dilemmas together (http://thefearlessheart.org/holding-dilemmas-together-in-the-workplace-a-sneak-preview-of-the-future/ and http://thefearlessheart.org/holding-tough-dilemmas-together-part-2/)

    Im curios how do You see these points and would be happy to continue this dialogue.

    The part about authenticity maybe we can discuss it in another dialogue

    All the best for you and Your loved ones in 2016

  14. Hassan says:

    Thanks for your courage Sir Peter

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