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People Do It Because We Let Them: Part 4

Ok, I’m going to pick up where I left off yesterday and move straight into a quick discussion of when we use punishment at the Austin Humane Shelter.  As I’ve noted, we ideally avoid this but the examples I’m going to provide are relevant as a segue to some more general comments and wrapping this up by trying to look at a whole shedload of different stuff. It’s going to be long today, had I planned better I would have done this across multiple weeks or every day this week but that’s not going to happen for scheduling reasons.  So…grab a drink and get ready.

The Role of Positive and Negative Punishment

Using approaches that revolve around reward methods work only when there is some behavior to reward in the first place.  With dogs this usually isn’t too hard since they generally want approval and usually do stuff that you can reward to shape their behavior.

But sometimes there are situations where there is only a negative behavior.  Not only is there not any positive behavior to reward but sometimes ignoring the behavior doesn’t make it go away.  In a case like that, using punishment (in this case positive punishment) may be the only option left.

For example, some very badly behaved dogs at the shelter are very pushy with whomever is walking them.  It’s most likely a dominance thing and they want to push boundaries (just like humans) and see who’s in charge (this is a topic I’ll come back to below).

They will jump and jump and jump on you and they won’t stop no matter how much you ignore them.  They never give you a chance to reward their being four on the floor and quiet so you can’t use that approach.

One quick way we fix this is to actually stand on their leash so that it’s too short for them to jump without getting yanked.  You have to do this before they jump mind you but a couple of times of jumping and having the leash stop them dead in their tracks and getting yanked usually fixes it since they don’t enjoy it very much.

For dogs who are even pushier than that, volunteers will sometimes have to body check the dog back while making a negative “ahh ahh” noise or “no”  This is just a mild form of positive punishment to indicate to the dog that the behavior is inappropriate.  It’s actually called a “negative reward marker” since the noise is only used to indicate that you took away a reward.

Then when the dog settles, they get positive reinforcement for doing something good.  But those are only for the worst behaved dogs the ones that simply don’t give you enough opportunities to use the other approaches that we try to focus on.

In a related vein, a passive type of positive punishment can be used when teaching a dog not to pull at a leash, or more accurately not to run or lunge.  Some dogs are either very energetic and love to run or only seem to have two speeds: standing in place and running at full speed.  Neither are behavior we want to encourage while on leash.

When I get a dog like this, or can tell when one is about to do it, I’ll set myself and set my shoulder and just wait.  They will run/surge, hit the end of the leash and get yanked.  Often off their feet, at the least they get spun around and I’ll stand and wait for them to check in with me before letting them move again. It usually only takes a few times of getting the hell yanked out of them to get them to knock it off.  Usually.

Frankly, I can’t think of any situation where you’d use negative reinforcement (removal of an aversive stimuli) with a dog certainly not at the shelter. Because that would entail first applying the aversive stimuli  so that it could be removed as a reward.  And while I’m quite sure some people do train dogs in this way (i.e. folks setting up dog fighting rings or something), it’s almost something I’d rather not know about.  Moving on.

I did note a human example of negative reinforcement, consider a coach who always has his athletes run wind sprints at the end of practice for punishment.  Then on a day when they gave the much desired (but impossible) 110% effort, he says “Good job guys, no wind sprints.”

That’s an example of negative reinforcement, the removal of a chronic punishment.   I imagine similar things go on in a military setting, groups getting a reward (via negative punishment) of not having to do PT that day or whatever as reward for a particularly good whatever.

But clearly there are situations where punishment (either through negative reinforcement or positive punishment) can be required.  Before moving on, let’s look at the issue of reward vs. punishment generally.

The Carrot or the Stick

At a fundamental level, behaviorism rests on either use rewards (providing or taking them away) and punishment (providing or taking them away) to shape a desired behavior.  Put differently,  you can try to shape a behavior and get someone or something to do what you want either because it wants to (i.e. because it wants to please you) or because it fears you.  Call this motivation with the carrot (reward) or the stick (punishment).

I can’t claim to have looked into the topic of behaviorism enough to know whether there is any sort of consensus as to whether reinforcement or punishment methods are either inherently superior or work better comparatively.  I suspect that this is where things get as complicated as you want to make it.

Some of it depends on how you want to be seen.  Do you want to engender obedience/proper behavior out of someone wanting to please you or because they fear you?  Consider two different managerial styles.

Managing with the Stick

The American way is usually that you only hear from your boss when you’re getting yelled at.  Obedience through fear of punishment and it leads to good behavior but workers who hate their bosses. Contrast this to a manager who, at least sometimes, gives rewards (financial, otherwise) for good behavior.  So that you’re not just getting called into his office to get called to the carpet.

You more or less get the same end result but perhaps with happier more motivated workers.  In the first place, you’re likely to get a worker who does nothing more than the bare minimum, whatever it takes to avoid punishment.

They have no reason to work above that level because there is no chance of reward.  So why would they bother.

Managing with the Carrot

Contrast that to the second situation which seems to be more of a European approach.  Here it’s more common for employees to be rewarded with good behaviors such a bonuses or what have you.  You get told “good job” when you do so or get some tangible reward.  And this engenders employees who know that good performance will be rewarded or acknowledged on some level.  Which encourages them to go the extra mile/above and beyond the minimum required to avoid punishment.

But before looking at some very specific examples to try and clarify some of this, there’s one more issue I want to look at which is that humans are not exactly dogs.  Yes, the principles of behaviorism are the same but there are nuances worth considering.

Humans are not Dogs (DUH)

As I mentioned in a previous part of this series, shaping a dog’s behavior is a bit different than what you can choose to do with humans.  Certainly you may be working against instinct/imprint or long-held behaviors in both cases but with the dog you can’t really sit it down for a heart to heart and tell it “Ok, if you don’t stop pulling at your leash I’m de-adopting you.” because it won’t understand anything beyond “blah blah blah, food, ball, poop”.    There is also the issue of long-term vs. short-term results and/or changes and what you’re trying to accomplish.

At the shelter, the dogs are there until we get them adopted so we automatically focus on the long-view.  We want to train them and for them to love their future forever family.  So we use an approach focusing almost exclusively on positive methods (using punishment only when needed) to achieve that.

When someone adopts a dog, presumably the same situation is in place.  Assuming they plan to keep the dog and want it to love them, focusing on reward based methods (positive reinforcement and negative punishment) is probably the best choice. Using punishment is only done when nothing else will work.  That’s only with higher level dogs and BRATT’s who have the training to do it properly.   Anyone who ever used punishment with a lower level dog would be kicked out of the program.

It’s worth noting that the dogs don’t have much choice in either case as to what they do.  They can’t escape the shelter and short of running away, they are in their forever home unless they get taken back.   They either respond to the training you’re doing or not.

And since they have a pretty strong drive to please their masters, usually they respond over time.  Basically the situation and the internal motivation to make master happy dictates the methods that seem to work best.  You can focus on positive methods because of the specifics of the situation.

But with people, that’s not always the case and things get more complex.  As above, issues of your motivation (to change their behavior), their motivation (to change their behavior), what actions they can take if they don’t want to change their behavior, as well as what end result (do you want them to like or simply fear you) determine what mix of activities or behaviorist techniques might be ideal.  Let’s look at some different examples below: personal training, coaches of athletes, the military and finally interpersonal relationships.

Personal Training

Personal trainers, and this is just a statement of fact, are often working with people who don’t really want to be there.  As well, the voluntary nature of a client hiring a trainer (and the fact that, in a sense, the trainer is the client’s employee) can make this one tricky.  Certainly we’d all love to use a variety of positive reinforcers to keep our clients showing up on time or making progress and trainers use a variety of approaches to do this.

You might offer a free sessions if they make 10 no-misses on time or whatever.  Or have a “Client of the month” board with pictures and results to acknowledge their hard work. Whatever it is you provide a reward (tangible or otherwise) to promote behaviors you want to see increase.  And this is great when there are positive behaviors to reinforce but we all know that’s not always the case.

Sometimes you have clients that are screw-ups.  They are late to every workout, or miss every other workout (somehow “emergencies” always seem to come up but this is just indicative that the training isn’t really important to them), every trainer reading this has had at least one of these.  And here you can’t use positive methods because there is nothing positive to reinforce.   Only punishment of some sort has any chance of working.

This assumes that you care about getting your clients results.  If you don’t you can let them do whatever they want and just keep taking their checks.  Just realize that this hurts you in the long run because, right or wrong, potential clients judge you by your current client’s results.

If half of your people aren’t getting anywhere because they are screw-ups and you’re allowing it, that can cost you in the long run because it’s costing you potential clients.  And realize that this client will invariably complain to you about a lack of results 8 weeks down the road despite having done nothing you asked and missing most of their workouts

Just realize that the client is just as likely to leave as not if you start beating on them or enforcing punishment.  Especially if they don’t want to be there in the first place, especially if they figure they are the boss because they are paying you.

Putting them on alert that if the behaviors don’t change or there will be consequences is just as likely to drive them away as not.  Which may or may not be acceptable depending on how many bills you have to pay.  But sometimes, with the real screw-ups, it’s the only option you have left.  I’ll come back to this.

Training Athletes

While superficially similar to personal training, a coach or trainer working with athletes is often in a very different situation indeed. The main difference being one of motivation.  There is also the issue that, as often as not, the athlete seeks out the coach for very specific purposes. Alternately, coaches are in a situation where athletes are coming to them through school or whatever.

The end result being that the coach is very much in the power position.  The athlete either wants to be there or has no choice in being there (to keep a scholarship or whatever).  The coaches can more or less use whatever mix of techniques that they prefer and the athlete can either fall in line or go elsewhere.

And you will probably see, on average, sports coaches using the greatest variety of the different forms of behaviorist techniques.  Positive reinforcement such as a special shirt or putting the athlete’s name on a special board (what high school doesn’t have 300, 400, 500 bench club) can all act as rewards for athletes who are putting in the effort.  Even a hearty “good job” when the athlete really puts out in training or competition can go a long way with certain types of athletes.

Many coaches will use various forms of punishment but sometimes the reasons are a bit more obscure than punishing just to punish.  Team coaches, for example, often want to bond the players to one another and that means giving them a common enemy: him.  If they all hate him because of the punishment he’s inducing with workouts, they bond together and that forms a good team.

Using punishment in a deliberate way also ensures that the athletes see him as the alpha male so that they’ll just shut up and listen. Sometimes that’s for the best as athletes who want to think often get themselves into trouble.  They need to shut up and just do the program.  Establishing himself as God (or at least God’s right hand man) through punishment methods helps to accomplish this.

In other cases, coaches may have to punish athletes for being late to practice (sending them home or what not depending) to get them to fall into line.  I’ve already described the odd example of how a coach that routinely gives his athletes a miserable drill at the end of a workout could apply negative reinforcement by not having them do it after a particularly good workout.  Other athletes might be motivated by negative punishment, having something that they enjoy taken away when they screwup.

Of course, coaches also may get to a point with certain athletes (often the prima donnas or always gonnas) that nothing works.  The athletes are constantly late or miss workouts, can’t be bothered to warm-up, are always making excuses and just not towing the line.

Not only does this hurt the coach’s reputation, these types of athletes often negatively impact the other athletes.  Either they figure they can get away with it because another athlete is or the bad athlete is just a negative influence.   When nothing else works, the coach has to move to the ultimatum option.

The Military

The military is probably the closest situation to what we have with the dogs in that the recruits are there and don’t have a lot of options (unless they want to go AWOL).  As well, since the military needs bodies, they can’t just get rid of everybody who won’t fall into line (har har).  So the focus tends to be on the long term.  However, the approach seems to be pretty different because of the specific goal outcome.

With the dogs, we want to teach them to like people and be happy in their home.  In the military, you’re training warriors who need to not only have the bonding of a sports team (meaning that the drill instructor needs to give them a common enemy, him, so that they’ll bond to each other as brothers) but to be ready to be pretty damn violent towards other humans (the enemy).   Given that it’s also a strict hierarchy, dominance patterns have to be instilled so that the soldiers will follow orders from their higher ups.

And inasmuch as I know little about the military, the primary focus would seem to be on a variety of punishment methods as the major method.  Certainly positive reinforcement (and I imagine some occasional forms of negative punishment, not having to do morning PT) might be used in the form of promotions or whatever.

But the main focus seem to be either on positive punishment (screw up and you or your team pay for it) and negative reinforcement (screw up and you lose something valuable to you like leave or something).  Which all makes perfect sense in the context of the situation (the soldiers don’t get to leave) and what they are trying to accomplish (make them mean).

Even there I imagine they face situations where a solider is just so intractable bad that extremes have to be used to get them to fall into line (again, har har).   Hang on, I’m getting there.


Here I’m referring to both romantic relationships as well as friendships since those are more similar to one another than anything else.  We might include family here but that just gets way too complicated and emotional.  Here we have arguably the most complex of all of the situations for reasons that are worth looking at.

With the exception of family (where there is often a sense of “obligation” to put up with someone and this causes people do put up with a lot of crap with family members), in a friendship or romantic relationship you have a situation where both individuals are voluntarily entering into the situation.

And strictly speaking, both can cut bait and leave at any time. And there’s an old joke that the person in power is the one who’s willing to walk away and that’s 100% true. Because the one who is willing to walk is the one who dictates what’s going to happen.

Now in an ideal situation, both individuals are happy with the situation as it stands, everybody is doing the right thing in which case there is really no issue to be had.  Which isn’t to say that there won’t be blips in the road, someone does something that the other doesn’t like, it’s brought up momentarily and dealt with and everyone moves on.

Remember the context of this series, we’re talking about people doing things that you don’t like (because you let them) and how to fix it by either rewarding behaviors that you like or punishing behaviors that you don’t.  If there’s nothing to fix, it’s not an issue. That’s the ideal and when it happens it’s awesome.  Also, unicorns.

Which doesn’t meant that what I’ve talked about may not be relevant from time to time.  If someone does something you particularly like, you may want to reward them to make it occur more often.  You might think of a traditional “reward” given by women to men for buying them jewelry. Ahem.

Positive reinforcement rarely hurts so long as it’s not done so constantly as to become meaningless. If you’re getting a gift for someone every damn day, the reward doesn’t mean anything and they learn that they can do anything and still get rewarded.  Wrong lesson.

The same would go for negative punishment.  Often a partner or friend will take away something that the other enjoys as a form of punishment.  Withholding sex comes to mind as an easy to understand example.  That’ll usually get someone to step into line…or find someone else to have sex with.  Never do this by the way.

And there are clearly times for positive punishment. Someone does something that they are not supposed to, one or the other of the partners invokes a positive punishment of some sort (You’re sleeping on the  couch tonite, that kind of thing).   Just basic behavioral techniques to either promote or an extinguish a given behavior that is either desired or not desired.

In terms of negative reinforcement, removing an aversive stimuli, as usual I can’t think of a lot of examples.  One might be letting someone off from doing something they don’t want to to (don’t have to cut the lawn, don’t have to go to the party with coworkers) in the first place.

If you’re using chronic aversive punishment with a friend or SO, you’re either in some sort of dom/sub relationship or abusive.  In that case, removing the abuse briefly (not beating your SO) could be a form of negative reinforcement.  Mind you, for a submissive who likes being abused, removing abuse is negative punishment.  You’re removing something that they enjoy.

Of course, folks tend to push boundaries in interpersonal relationships, although to varying degrees.  Dogs do it, kids do it (usually when they hit the toddler stage and again as teens), people do it.

A classic example between men and women who have just started dating is something called the shit test.  This is when individual in a situation does something just to see if the other one will let them get away with it.  It’s traditionally used by females against a guy they may or may not be interested in.  But it goes both ways.

It’s a way of seeing if he’ll put up with crap or not and she’ll test him in some stupid way or another.  And if he lets it slide, she learns that she can walk all over him. He also trains her that she can get away with anything without consequences and that’s bad.

You only get respect if you require respect and failing a shit test is a straight line to not being respected.  The same goes if you let your dog push you around or if you let a client or athlete get away with something they shouldn’t.  They learn that there aren’t consequences and they stop listening because they know that don’t have to.

Yes it’s stupid but it happens because humans are idiots.

A shit test has to be met with immediate positive punishment of some sort or there will be a loss of respect as she learns that she can walk over him (I wasn’t joking when I said that dogs, like athletes, kids and girlfriends like boundaries and this is an example of that).

Friends shouldn’t do this to their actual friends but I’m quite sure it goes on.  But this is usually a case when someone has a confused idea of what a friend is and lets someone call themselves a friend who is just a manipulator or a user.

We’ve all known that guy who always borrows money from you or asks for favors but never seems to be able to help you out in any meaningful fashion (the one you’ve helped move 16 times but who ‘just doesn’t have time’ to take you to the airport who doesn’t have the money they owe you but just bought a new Iphone; you know the guy).

You may be their “friend” but they sure as hell aren’t yours.  They just use the word to get what they want out of you.  And they do because you let it happen.

Perhaps the biggest complication of the interpersonal relationship is that, in premise, both individuals are free to leave at any given time.  Practice is a different thing mind you but in premise either can leave.  And when you mix that with emotions (or simply time invested, the gambler’s fallacy) people often start to overlook negative behaviors or let them slide out of fear that they will lose the other person.  This actually holds for other situations and many fall into the same trap that I’m going to use towards the end of the piece.

At the extreme of relationships, most have found (read: put) themselves in a situation with someone who is just a user, a manipulator, an abuser, where the other person continually does something that you dislike.  A boyfriend or girlfriend who takes advantage of you in some how, or a cheater, or a liar or whatever.   And that brings us to the next to last topic.

The Point of No Return

It would be ideal if you could get everybody to act right just with a simple combination of positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment applied properly over time.  Also, unicorns.  Because the reality is that, in many cases you reach a point of no return.

Where everything you’ve tried has failed and there is some behavior that is simply too odious to be acceptable (or where gentler approaches to changing it have failed).  You might not have a positive behavior to reinforce, or the negative behavior is just too consistent.   Where you reach the point that the behavior is simply so unacceptable that it either has to change right now or you’re done trying.

Universally this will be a case of eliminating some behavior (of a client, athlete, SO) that you dislike and where the only way you really have to do it is through providing extreme and immediate negative consequences (positive punishment).  Mind you, sometimes you put yourself in this situation.

If you see a behavior that you dislike early on and you either let it slide (passive reinforcement) or worst yet reinforce it by rewarding it, you’ve contributed to the problem.  Ideally when something unacceptable comes up, you should stop that in its tracks immediately and at the first sign.  Also, unicorns.

This does actually happen with dogs. I’ve mentioned that the Austin Human Shelter is a no-kill shelter.  This actually means we try to put down 10% or less of our dogs.  And the only time it happens is when a dog has a completely intractable behavior problem.  Usually involving biting people. Something that can’t be trained out of it. There’s just no other solution and it has to be destroyed.  But this is very rare.

I’m sure in the military, there are folks so useless as to be untrainable, who simply can’t be worked with for whatever reason who get booted for the same reason.  Too dumb, too stubborn, too unteachable.  They are sent away.  Or, if my military friend’s general bitching is accurate, they are promoted.

Having THE TALK (TM)

But like I said, humans aren’t dogs and you can do something with humans you can’t do with dogs: have a little sit down.   So consider the situation where you’re a personal trainer who’s fed up with a screw-up client, or you’re a coach fed up with a screw-up athlete, or you’re in a relationship and you’re fed up with what your SO is doing.  Or fed up with something that they’ve done (if you were smart enough to catch it on the first time and it was bad enough for you to have this major of a reaction).

And you decide that it’s unacceptable and is going to stop and it’s time to have The Talk ™.  During The Talk ™, you calmly and rationally express to them the situation, effectively

Ok, here’s the deal. I am unhappy with your actions.  It is unacceptable and will not continue and you have two options.  Either what you’re doing stops now or I’m [pick one] firing you as a client, firing you as an athlete, breaking up with you, we’re no longer friends.

Sometimes it’s easier with a letter or email because face to face conversations escalate and can get emotional and yelly.

Note that, like with the consistency issue with dogs, ideally this should be done pretty much at the first instance of  something you dislike occurring.  Letting someone get away with something a half-dozen times before you put your foot down only teaches them that they don’t have to worry about it until eventually comes around.  As I said above you were part of making the problem worse by letting it happen.  The first time they step out of line, you need to stop it.  But if you don’t, the above still works.

Now, this is predicated on your being ready and willing to enforce the punishment.  If you aren’t or can’t and/or they know it, you’re going to make it worse.  Because they’ll learn soon enough that you’re bluffing. This is actually far worse than just letting it go.  You can only lay down a final consequence if you’re ready to go through with it.  Whether you don’t act at all or try to bluff you’re still letting it happen and have no one to blame but yourself.

What To Expect

When you do something akin to the above, you can expect a handful of possible responses.  One is that the person goes “Ok, I agree that I was out of line, I won’t do that again.” and they actually don’t do it again and you can hopefully both move on with your lives.  Also unicorns.

I was once late for skate warm-up in my first year, I didn’t realize how long it took.  My coach told me “You need to be here at least 45 minutes before ice time to get warmed up.”  I said ok and was never late again except for a couple of real emergencies (like when my car blew up).  I didn’t have to hear it a second time but that’s not the norm in my opinion nor experience.

How likely the above is to happen depends on the situation, how important keeping you (as friend, coach, trainer, lover) is compared to changing the behavior.  How serious they are taking your consequences (i.e. do they think you’re going to go through with it).

All of those myriad variables that make interacting with humans both fascinating and annoying as hell. It’s complicated.  Mind you, sometimes people will only pay lip service to changing.  Or they will give it an effort but it fails.

That’s the second thing that commonly happens.  Once put on warning, folks will at least pretend to put in some effort.  Or they will try to bs you with a lame ‘Well, I’ll try to do better’ which simply means that they are saying what you want to hear but don’t intend to do a damn thing.

Usually this lasts about 2-3 weeks which is the approximate length that the average screw-up can get it together.  And then you will see the same old habit starts happening again.  The client starts being late, the athlete starts shirking warm-ups, the SO starts behaving badly over time.  Alternately they just go immediately back to the old behavior and do it again.

At this point you have multiple options although you really don’t.  If you want to perpetrate the pattern, you can give them a third chance.  And a fourth and a fifth.  And just recognize that every time you let them “try for two weeks” and then go back to their old crap all you’re doing is telling them that there aren’t really consequences, reinforcing the behavior in a twisted way.

I’m not saying give them one chance and that’s it.  But after two tries, the reality is that it’s not likely to happen and you have to move on.

Without actual consequences there is no actual change and if you keep letting them slide after trying for two weeks, they realize that there aren’t consequences.  Or you can do what you should but most don’t: you enforce your consequences.

On this note, I should make a quick rant about actions vs. words.  It’s very very easy to tell someone what they want to hear but only dumb people think the words are meaningful. The actions are all that count.

An athlete or trainer who keeps telling you “I’m trying to get here on time” but it always late is just making noise.   Ignore the words, pay attention only to the actions.  Either the actions change or they don’t.  Pretending doesn’t get it done.  Moving on.

Make no mistake, everybody screws up, sometimes folks don’t know that what they did was unacceptable if they weren’t told upfront. You can’t hold them accountable for not knowing something bugged you.   I see people say all the time “They should know better.” but that’s nonsense.  If they knew better they wouldn’t have done.  Or, if they knew better and did it anyway, they are sociopaths.

That’s why you have to tell them and put them on warning that it doesn’t happen again or there are consequences.  And they make a half-assed effort to fix it and then do it again. And that’s when you should walk.

You fire them as an athlete, client or girlfriend/boyfriend and fill their position with someone who doesn’t give you a headache.  Because they have just established that they are either unwilling or unable to change the behavior that you dislike.  And either way it’s a deal-breaker.  So you enforce your consequences and move on.  At that point, you’ve used up your options.

And then there’s the last possibility, and the one that may occur as often as not is that they will hear you out and go “Ok, I find your terms unacceptable, I’m gone.”  They find another trainer, another coach, another person to get naked with who will put up with their crap.  Or they say “I’m not willing to change that behavior.  Tough.”  At which point you have to enforce your consequences.

Make no mistake, this is as likely an outcome as them actually changing their behavior although, again it depends on the specifics of the situation as to whether or not this is more or less likely than them staying and changing (or trying to change the behavior).  Keep this in mind as I make one final detour and then wrap this mess up.

Doing the Wrong Thing for Seemingly Right Reasons

Everything I’ve discussed is oh so easy to discuss in abstract terms and even easier when we are giving advice to others about what to do.  Guys will tell a friend “Yeah, man, kick that chick to the curb, she isn’t worth the hassle.” all while dating a girl who’s 10x as awful.  Girls will tell a friend “That guy is bad for you, dump him” while dating someone far worse who they make excuses for.

It’s the same reason it’s so hard to be your own coach.  It’s easy to be objective about someone else’s situation, less so about our own.  We rationalize, we justify.  We make dumb excuses.

Training Dogs

But there is more complexity.  Often we don’t act or punish negative behaviors for reasons that we think are right but really aren’t.  We do it for emotional reasons, or out of fear.  For example, some people won’t check leash pulling because they “don’t want to hurt the dog”.

They think the dog is choking because it makes little noises when they stop walking in the field and they don’t want to hurt it.  Not realizing that the dog isn’t in pain and they are doing it no favors.  And they end up not fixing a damn thing and wonder why their dog is out of control.

Raising Kids

Or consider a parent who doesn’t feel good punishing their kid.  Or a situation where the punishment is inconsistent: dad lays down the law and mom doesn’t enforce it or vice versa.  Not only does this send a bad message to the kid, it results in someone who knows there are no consequences to their action.  Parents are wired to love their kids and don’t like to see them hurting or punished.  But sometimes that’s the only thing that sends a message.

Because if you bail out their screw-ups or allow them every time, all the kid learns is that there are no consequences to their actions.  And that results in badly behaved people.  I had a friend years ago whose daughter was really messing up, getting arrested constantly.  Eventually the friend let the daughter sit in jail overnight.  Was it hard to do?  Yes.  Did it get the girl to straighten up?  You bet your ass it did.  Sitting in jail over night sent a powerful message that there were real consequences to her actions.

Personal Training

With personal training clients, the trainer is usually afraid of losing the client and/or income.  They don’t set boundaries because, as likely as not, the client will just leave.  This is a real fear and whether or not it should impact things depends entirely on the trainers finances and ability to get new clients.

As I mentioned, keeping screw-ups in your stable can hurt in the long run because others simply see that you can’t get results.  Firing the screw-ups may hurt in the short-term but it will pay off in the long term.  Of course, if you need that client to pay your power bill, you may not have a real choice.

Coaching Athletes

Coaches of athletes are usually pretty good about not allowing shenanigans because they know it helps nobody including themselves, the athlete or the team as a whole.  But some do.  My own coach, technical master that he was, was terrible at handling people.  He would only give consequences to those of us who didn’t need them.  I was late to warmup, he told me once and that was it.

He had athletes miss 80% of their workouts, show up late, skip warm-ups, skip drills, skip cool-downs.  By letting this happen without consequence, he told them that they didn’t have to make practice, or warm-up or cool-down and he’d still coach them.  So why would they magically stop doing it?

One time an athlete showed up to practice complaining that he was too tired to train.  And then spent the hour skating around the parking lot.  Bottom line: if you’re too tired to train, you’re too tired to be at practice.  Coach should have sent the guy home and imposed punishment on all of the others for their constant screw-ups.  Send them home when they are late, extra drills or forcing them to do warm-ups, firing the total screw-ups.  But he did not.  And the lesson sent was a bad one.

All they learned is that no matter what they did, it didn’t matter, he’d coach them regardless.  So they walked all over him.  Worse yet, their bullshit affected those of us (such as myself) who were serious.  Because practice got disrupted, we had to alter things to make up for the screw-ups.  He was teaching them that they, as screw-ups, got more preference than the serious athletes.  That’s backwards.

Now my coach’s rationale was seemingly good, he was doing what he thought was right for seemingly the right reason.  He loved speed skating, a small sport with few people.  He wouldn’t come down on his athletes for fear of “losing them to the sport.  He was afraid they’d quit if the imposed punishment or consequences.

And he was probably right.  And I pointed out to him repeatedly that anybody who was that big of a screw-up was no “loss” to the sport.  Not only would they never get anywhere, but they brought nothing to the sport except their drama, excuses and bullshit.   In fact, they destabilized the entire team and made it worse for those of us who did the right things.

But he never listened (and I reinforced his bitching by listening to it every year).

The Military

You’ll note that the military doesn’t have the issue. They effectively own their recruits.  The recruits can’t leave and that means that the military can do whatever it damn well pleases in training them.  And what they do works.  There’s a lesson in that.

Interpersonal Relationships

And then there are interpersonal relationships. We let SO’s and friends do things we don’t like for various reasons.  Emotional attachment, fear of being alone, because we’ve invested so much time into the relationship or friendship that we want to ‘give it some more time’ to see if it can be worked out (the gambler’s fallacy), because we don’t want them to suffer or be unhappy or deal with the consequences or their actions.

So we have a “friend” living with us not paying a penny of rent.  We don’t kick them out because we don’t want them to “have to live on the street”.  So we coddle and enforce their bullshit by letting them stay without having to contribute. Usually they make it worse by using up resources (food, water and power bills) that they won’t contribute to.  Not recognizing that perhaps living on the street for a few days would make them realize a powerful lesson about getting their act together.

We fail to realize that not setting our foot down and providing consequences simply makes the situation worse.  Not only does it bring you continual stress, all it does is reinforce their actions because you’re unable or unwilling to act (it also does them no favors because they are never forced to examine their damaging behaviors, knowing they will get bailed out).

Because if you let something happen, it will continue to happen.  Expecting it to magically change without some form of consequences is idiotic.   Because no-one has any reason to change a behavior if you don’t give them a reason (read: consequence and here that means punishment) to not changing the behavior.

Yes, fine, every once in a while someone realizes they are being shitty and voluntarily changes their behavior.  But it’s very very rare.

We are afraid of that last reality of giving a final ultimatum and consequences when things get to bad: that the person will simply leave.  But in doing so we fail to realize the most important part of this.

Either Way the Problem is Solved

When things reach the point of no return, where every gentle approach to behavior change you’ve tried has failed, you are left with exactly two options.  You can let it keep going on in which case you have no room to complain (you’re letting it happen) or you can provide a “This changes or we’re done” ultimatum.  That’s it.

And while I provided a multitude of possible outcomes of such a talk, there are really only two of them. Either the behavior changes or it doesn’t.  If it does, fantastic, problem solved and you can get on with your lives.  Here I’m assuming it changed for real, not just 2-3 weeks before coming back but that just leads back to the “It changes or else.”.

But what if it doesn’t?

Either the person says “I find your terms unacceptable, I’m done” or they don’t change their behavior and you cut them off.

Here’s what you have to realize: either way the problem, the negative behavior that you didn’t like, is fixed from your standpoint.  But you’ll argue that the person is still acting the same way. Yes they are.  But there’s zero you can do about that.  All that matters is that you’re not letting them do it to you anymore.

Whether they change the behavior or go inflict it on someone else, YOUR problem is solved because you don’t have to deal with it anymore.  The screw-up client, the screw-up athlete, the screw-up SO, the screw-up friend that was causing you nothing but grief.  They aren’t your problem anymore whether they change the behavior or leave.  Your problem is solved either way.

Because the reality is that you can’t always change their behavior.  It’s not something you can control.  All you can control is how you respond to it.  You can try to change it with various forms of reward and punishment, sometimes all you can give is the ultimatum.

And you can’t even control their response to that.  All you can control is how you respond to their response.  Which is why you have to be ready to enforce the consequences if (when) they don’t change.  And yes, it will feel like a loss.

Is it Really a Loss?

The other thing people fail to realize is this: If they were a screw-up client and you “lose them”, well it’s no real loss.  They weren’t going to get results or help you build your business.  You may be losing some short-term income but that’s it.  Now you have the option to replace them with a better client.

If they were a screw-up athlete and you “lose them”, it’s no loss.  They brought nothing to the sport and weren’t doing anything to make your life as a coach easier (either through stress to you or destabilizing the athletes on the team who weren’t screw-ups).

If it’s a friend who does nothing but take advantage of you without ever being there for you and you “lose them”, it’s no loss.  They weren’t your friend in the first place.  They used the words but the actions didn’t match.  You don’t need them in your life and should only surround yourself with friends who are actual friends.  Your life will be objectively better with this person out of it.

And if it’s an SO who is doing something you find unacceptable and you “lose them”, it’s no loss really.  Why would you want to be with someone who treats you badly or does things you don’t like?  Go find someone who doesn’t do that (yes, I realize that there are contingencies where it isn’t this simple: kids, etc. just focus on the principle here) and get rid of the person who doesn’t.

That’s why the family issue is so complicated.  It’s a lot harder to walk away from folks you’re related to or simply cut them out of your life.  Which is a lot of why family generates so much bullshit and drama.  Family members don’t think they have to worry about you telling them off or cutting them out of your life.  They know (or think) they can get away with crap so they push it as far as they can.

As the old joke says:  If you weren’t related to your family, would you be friends with these people?

Because here’s the other thing it often takes folks a while to realize:  screw-ups never seem to have a problem finding someone who will put up with their bullshit.  The lame client will find a trainer to let their crap slide. An athlete will find a coach who will let them goof off or simply surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear as they fail to succeed.

A friend who does nothing but take advantage will have no problem with finding someone else to take advantage of.  The girlfriend or boyfriend living with you who’s not paying rent (but who seems to have money for useless stuff) never seems to have a problem finding someone else to put them up.  Crazy girls or boys will always find someone to put up with their bullshit.  There are plenty of people in the world willing to let these folks get away with crap and let the behaviors slide without consequence.  Just don’t let it be you.

Don’t Let Them Do it to YOU

You can’t control what other people do for the most part.  They are going to do what they are going to do and that’s what they are going to do.  However, you can control is what you do in response.  And regardless of how you approach it, if there is a single message in this ovewritten series it’s this:

If they are going to act badly no matter what, just make sure that you don’t let them act badly towards you.

Because if you let them get away with their behaviors without consequence, you are just as responsible for the behavior as they are.  They were wrong but you were willing.  And it only happened because you let it happen.  And that’s the punchline to this whole thing even if I got off on an absurd tangent about behaviorism.

People do things we don’t like for one reason and one reason only:

Because we let them.

And the only way to stop that, in an ultimate sense is this: Don’t let them.

And comments are now turned on, I’m sure they will be fascinating.  GO!

Read Because We Let them: Part 5

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