We become what we are told we are

Clifford Stott is famous for decreasing European football hooliganism and rioting. He trained the police on “low-profile, nonaggressive tactics” and said to “leave the riot gear behind.” It worked. Turns out, when hooligans aren’t treated like hooligans, they stop acting like hooligans.

Thinking about my toughest clients, my most abrasive coworkers, my misbehaving kids, and my drama-filled family members, I wonder how much of that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I thought they were that way, so I treated them that way, so they acted that way.

We become what we are told we are.

Fredrik Backman, Beartown

Extreme Ownership has a fantastic chapter called “Leading Up and Down The Chain”. It explains that whenever anyone is acting a fool, you have to ask yourself what you are doing wrong to cause that.

If your boss is being a jerk, assume for a second that’s your fault. What are you doing that’s making her lash out? What are you not giving her that she needs? Are you expecting her to be a jerk and letting that tarnish your interaction with her? “We become what we are told we are.”

Lots of parenting books talk about breaking a cycle that isn’t working. Say my kid resists doing his homework, and every night is a battle about it that ends with yelling and tears. That’s a cycle that isn’t working. I can keep trudging up that terrible hill, or I can break the cycle. Maybe failing with abandon is the answer for once. Maybe if I treat him like a kid who does his homework willingly, then he’ll become that kid. “We become what we are told we are.”

This all boils down to the cliche that we should take the charitable stance. But that’s a tough rule to follow in the moment. Instead, try this: treat everyone like the person you want them to be, rather than the person you think they are.

(And if you’re sure it won’t work with that one toxic person you have in mind, pitch it as an experiment since that way you can’t fail!)


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