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By Caroline Fleck

The Opposite of What You Don't Want

Uploaded: May 17, 2015

Fun fact: One of the most effective strategies for addressing behavioral problems in children, is also among the most effective strategies for decreasing marital conflict. In other words, you can use the same approach to manage parent-child and marital conflicts.

What's the strategy? Parenting experts refer to it as reinforcing the "positive opposite" of an unwanted behavior.

For instance, if the unwanted behavior is putting objects in her mouth (as was the case with my 1 year old), the positive opposite (what I would prefer she did instead) might be giving me the objects she is thinking of putting in her mouth. Rather than saying "no," or enforcing a time out when she intentionally puts something in her mouth, I would take the object from her and thank her effusively for "giving it to me." The aim is to do this at every opportunity until she starts bringing items to you rather than putting them in her mouth (this may seem unlikely, but decades of research suggest that, if done correctly and consistently, emphasizing positive opposites will significantly increase compliant and prosocial behavior in most kids).

My example was with a young child, but reinforcing positive opposites has been shown to be an effective strategy for shaping the behavior of older children and adolescents, as well as kids with extreme behavioral problems.

Marriage experts recommend a similar strategy, which they term stating a "positive need." Rather than telling your partner what you don't want, identifying the positive need has you focus instead on what you want them to do. As John Gottman, PhD, says, the positive need is about highlighting ways in which your partner can "shine for you." It's telling them what you want or expect from an interaction in a gentle, non-defensive manner, rather than assuming that they will intuit your needs and then criticizing them when they don't.

For example, if what you want is support and validation, you might open a conversation with your partner by asking them to listen to your perspective without trying to solve the problem. You might emphasize that you want them to understand how you feel about the issue before attempting to resolve it.

If and when you do get the comfort you seek from your partner, find ways to reinforce them, rather than "letting sleeping dogs lie" by not attending to the behavior you want. If you aren't sure how to do this in the moment, circle back to it after you've had some time to reflect on what exactly you appreciated about their response and how you can most effectively reward them (the last thing you want is for your praise or statements of appreciation to come off as criticisms). Focus on finding ways of expressing appreciation that are sincere and effective.

Positive opposites and the positive need are based on the same basic principles:

1. In telling someone what not to do, we don't teach them or give them a sense of what to do. We often assume that they know, or should know, how to act, but behavioral research suggests that this is not the case. We require lots of direction in order to consistently engage in a behavior across situations and mood states. Most of us have had the experience of having mastered a speech or presentation, only to fail spectacularly at delivering it in front of an audience. Just because we know how to do something when we are cool, collected, and calm doesn't mean we'll be able to do it when we're stressed, excited, or frustrated.

2. Rewarding behavior is arguably the most effective way of getting it to reoccur. Again, punishment and criticism communicate what NOT to do, but they don't provide an opportunity for someone to practice the desired behavior. They also don't pair the desired behavior with a positive outcome (reward). To teach a dog to sit, you don't tell him to stop standing. You say the word "sit," help him down into a seated position, and then reward him with a treat for "sitting" and your enthusiastic praise.

3. We're likely to feel attacked when told that what we are doing is wrong or bad. When we feel criticized, we tend to become defensive; the more defensive we are, the more physiologically activated we become. When this happens, we transition into fighting mode, and fighting mode is not very conducive to learning new behaviors or reacting positively to feedback.

If you feel that you have tried these approaches and failed, or aren't sure how to apply them, I recommend checking out Kazdin's or Gottman's work. Both have written extensively on these concepts and have well researched strategies for how to use them effectively.

As an experiment this week, you might simply notice how often you say "no," "don't," or "stop" to your children. Again, each of these instances would be opportunities for taking a "positive opposites" approach. Similarly, in interactions with your partner, consider how you might frame your needs as opportunities for your partner to make you happy or to "shine for you," rather than ways in which they have disappointed or failed you.

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