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Last Updated on July 3, 2020

Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Which Is More Effective?

Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Which Is More Effective?

It has been said that rarely am I short of words, and yet I’ve rewritten this article on positive and negative reinforcement five times. Why?

It’s not as if I have a lack of thoughts on this subject. It’s not as if I don’t spend my days enabling people to communicate powerfully and get what they want in life. So why the rewrites?

I’ve found myself thinking about the diversity of people I’ve coached and how different we all can be. Usually when I write for Lifehack, I’m able to see instant commonality in the subject that means I could share some ideas that would resonate wherever you are in life, whoever you are, regardless of what you were looking to achieve or what adversity you may be facing.

However, with this, it’s a “How long’s a piece of string?” answer, i.e. I could probably write a whole book’s worth of words and still have ideas to share.

Let’s look at some key points:

  • You will have times in your life where you need to get someone to do something.
  • You will have times when someone needs you to do something.

Let’s look at how positive and negative reinforcement would work. In both of these situations, you can face some big obstacles:

  • Someone may resist your desire for them to change.
  • Someone may challenge your authority or leadership.
  • Someone may be at risk of getting hurt.

The important thing to remember is that, in life, we all have to be influenced and influence those around us, and some ways will help us get the result we want, and others won’t. However, that may differ on where you are, who you are talking to, and what you want to see happen!

So, how do we know when positive reinforcement is effective[1], and can there ever be a time when negative reinforcement is good?

Worryingly, if you get positive and negative reinforcement wrong, you can risk your career, your business, your relationships, your reputation, and your brand.

Positive and negative reinforcement each have their merits, so it’s imperative to know when to employ them. Interestingly, despite a ton of evidence to the contrary, we still rely on the wrongs ones in society, business, and even in parenting.

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The 4 examples below showcase the use of positive and negative reinforcement, and whether they personally apply to you right now or not, they will resonate and be very useful to you personally in every area of your life.

For each we will look at:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What have you tried?
  3. Now what?
  4. The results!

The Boss

Okay, you may not be a boss, but everyone will have times in their life where they need to get people organized and working together to get the best result. Often, leaders say things like this to me:

  • “I’ve told them until I’m blue in the face not to do that!”
  • “They constantly refuse to use the new system.”
  • “They just don’t listen.”
  • “They don’t respect me.”

What Did the Boss Try?

Often, I hear “We’ve tried everything!” No matter who is reading this, trust me, you’ve not tried everything. (That’s the first thing to accept.) When you accept that, you then need to look at what you have tried to move forward.

The boss has tried:

  • Giving the person training.
  • Spending time with them and showing them how to do it.
  • Telling them it wasn’t good enough.
  • Telling them we aren’t doing that any more.

Now What?

The above situations create tension between the two as you constantly battle to maintain your position on the situation. If you are looking to get someone to do something, and they constantly resist, you need to stop and ask yourself some questions:

  1. What have we tried? This helps you to understand what they are good at, so you can utilize that in the conversation.
  2. From their viewpoint, what could prevent them from doing what I’ve asked? What could they fear, and how will we allay those fears?
  3. What do they want? Seeing their viewpoint enables you to use their terminology and language so they feel listened to.
  4. What do they believe? Do their beliefs prevent them from seeing the benefits? Beliefs can be changed but not by force—coaching is very powerful for this.
  5. How do these answers differ from my beliefs and views? Bridging the gap helps you to see both views and communicate more powerfully.

In my experience, rarely does a boss or leader need to say the word “No.” If someone is not doing what you want them to, the quickest way to see results is to ask questions and listen. Often, when you really listen, you discover a big gap between what you think you are saying and what the other person is hearing.

The reasons why someone is not doing what you want can include:

  • They don’t know how to do what you’ve asked them to do.
  • They are scared to get it wrong.
  • They fear what people will think of them.
  • They don’t have the confidence to come and tell you they need help.
  • They are scared that someone will tell them off.
  • They don’t understand where the boundaries are.

People tell me, “But I said that to them!” If you are too close to the situation, then how likely are they to take notice from you? Here’s what you can do:

  • Get out of your usual environment – Neutral environments make difficult conversations easier. They can take you both off your guard, which can be good.
  • Start by making that person feel safe to say anything. Start with ground rules like “This is a confidential conversation” and “I won’t make any judgement on what you say, I just want to understand.”
  • Be prepared to say “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t realize.” When you do this, positive and negative reinforcement can be used.

Learning how to coach people instead of tell people is key. Enabling the other person to see the benefits of what you want for them (and not you) is quicker than trying to dictate action.

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  • Lay out expected outcomes.
  • Create boundaries.
  • Explain what support and help you will provide.

The Results

This style of reinforcement is about utilizing both positive and negative reinforcement. It enables someone to feel safe to explain why they’ve not been taking action and helps them to overcome the limitations they feel while safe in the knowledge that they will get the support to change with the positive results explained in a way that matters to them.

The Young Child

If you’ve ever found yourself on the wrong end of a relentless tantrum of a small child, you will know it can feel impossible to get through to them. While many elements of The Boss scenario could work, there are times where you may need some negative reinforcement.

What’s the Problem?

My children are now 15 and 18. I can honestly say that, while we have had some challenging behaviors, our parenting means I have two children I’m very proud of–great communicators, great work ethic, kind, funny, considerate. The point is that, for my children, this stuff works. And, to be honest, when I’m with other people’s children, they often say “How did you get them to do that!”

Young children are amazing. It’s like they’ve just woken up in a new body and have been told to go touch, feel, experience everything–every emotion, every taste, smell, experience, texture, the lot! They are curious and keen to know more. They sap up everything, and a lot of that we don’t want them sapping up!

When they go to put a pencil in an electric socket, or let go of your hand as you cross the road, it’s imperative they get the learning and knowledge they need fast. I once was talking to a parent that said I was wrong to say no to my children. I asked, “At what age would you like me to introduce them to that word?” to which they had no answer.

While I agree that there are usually a lot more words than just no for children, “no” is a word that kept you and I safe when we were small.

What Have You Tried?

While young children are incredibly intelligent, explaining the merits of your preferred course of action is not going to keep them safe. Tying them to your waist isn’t working. Punishing them and telling them there’s no more park time until you walk next to me doesn’t work either. So how do you say no and keep them safe?

Now What?

Sometimes negative reinforcement is essential[2]. For instance, my son (who adored Bob the Builder when he was little) was playing with his plastic tool kit and discovered an electric socket…I didn’t stop to explain the merits of how that could be dangerous. I said calmly, “No, that’s dangerous!”

Here’s the important point: It’s not just about your words. With young children, it’s important that your body language clearly says the same.

The Results

I did feel like the luckiest parent on the planet to have two children sleeping through the night, but that didn’t tell the full story. I can remember spending a few weeks calmly picking my daughter up with no eye contact, no overly big hug, no conversation, just saying, “Sorry darling but now’s bedtime, so back we go.” And yes, being the strong-willed girl that she is, there was sometimes a good hour of that until she got the message that Mum really isn’t going to play, turn into a dinosaur, sing, or read a story.

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The thing with positive and negative reinforcement is that you need to have faith it will work, and you are doing the right thing.

Of course, when I went in to get her from her cot the next morning, I had a big grin on my face that said, “Wow, what a grown up girl you are staying in your bed all night!” I used positive reinforcement to get the day started.

The Teenager

What’s the Problem?

If I’m honest, I don’t have problems with my teenagers. However, I think that is in no small part to my style of communication. Having respect for them is key, and appreciating how much change is happening in their lives really helps–as someone who helps large teams of people deal with change, I know how hard it can be.

However, when I wrote the article How to Enjoy Parenting Teens and Help Your Kids Thrive, I was inundated with stories of hellish behavior from other parent’s teenagers, tales of staying out all night and not phoning home, abusive behavior towards parents and teens–I really felt for all involved.

What Have You Tried?

The problem with teens is they know exactly how to wind you up like a little clock-work toy. And if you’ve had a tough day, the last thing you want is to have to deal with someone who can’t even communicate with words, let alone put their dishes in the dishwasher.

Losing it is never the option, but it can easily happen. Shouting, bribery, and doing it yourself because it’s just easier really don’t work in the long run.

Now What?

If you consider everything we’ve covered, you can see that you need to communicate using positive and negative reinforcement. In life, there are consequences to all actions, and teens have a ton of stuff to learn to become effective, successful, happy adults.

Before you embark on any course of action, consider how the other person perceives the world. What are they going through?

You may have loved being a teen, but that doesn’t ensure your children will. Likewise, in life, there are things you love that others will loathe–seeing the world through other people’s eyes really helps you to understand the best way to communicate.

The only big difference for teenagers is to use emotion with caution. I personally let my children see all emotions–I’ve not hidden my tears when I’ve lost a loved one as it’s a perfectly normal thing to do. However, if a teenager in a foul mood can spot a weakness, they may just take advantage of it.

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The Results

My kids love to tell everyone I’m a scary mom. I’m not, I just have high standards, and I’m not prepared to drop them.

We shy away from telling people what we expect and then wonder why we are getting as stressed as the other party because no one knows where they stand.

I’m happy for my children to take over the TV room and eat far too much sweet stuff and binge on a box set. Just don’t put cups on the carpet, we have places for drinks. It’s having the confidence to say this is the rule.

People think negative reinforcement is a bad thing. However, how can someone change if they don’t know what they are doing wrong? And that’s the issue: so many of us are fearful of saying “Stop doing that!” If you lack confidence, find your voice because people aren’t mind-readers.

Final Thoughts

Before you start considering whether positive or negative reinforcement is best for others, ask yourself what you respond better to.

Personally, I respond far better to negative reinforcement–I can improve and be more successful and happier if I know what I’m doing wrong. Furthermore, I know that sometimes negative reinforcement works better with some clients who really don’t want to look at the issue–but it’s always done with respect and love.

Coaching people is also a great representation of when positive and negative reinforcement is best. We are looking to find ways to increase the positive action with positive reinforcement and ways to reduce the negative results with negative reinforcement–and usually my clients keep those changes for the rest of their lives.

More on Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Mandie Holgate

International Coach, Best Selling Author & Speaker inspiring people around the world to success.

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Last Updated on October 16, 2020

12 Ways to Get Back on Track When Things Don’t Work Out

12 Ways to Get Back on Track When Things Don’t Work Out

Life can be complicated. A few months ago, you felt like you were being extremely productive. You would visit the gym regularly, stick to your healthy eating habits, make achievements at your workplace, and were even getting quality sleep each night. You felt motivated enough to take on any task that came your way and even executed it to perfection.

But all of a sudden, everything is dull and bleak. You got too tired of the hectic schedule and you slipped, making you go down a rabbit hole of demotivation and procrastination. Maybe you suffered from the loss of a relationship, an illness, an injury, or a significant setback. Now, you only find yourself thinking negatively because you feel as though all the progress you had made is now ruined.

However, when things don’t work out, there are things you could do to get your life back on track. Many religions and traditions state that in the end, you will be happy. If you aren’t happy, then it is not the end.

But how does one find the motivation to start all over again when things don’t work out? Simple: you go back to the basics.

What Is Control?

When things don’t work out, the first thought that comes to mind is how to begin from scratch. But before you start figuring that out, it is important to know what control is.

Does control mean having a good work-life balance? Or does control refer to being a quick decision-maker?

The thing is that control can be subjective. Having ‘control’ over your life is important, but it may not always mean the same thing for two different people.

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Taking control of your life means that you are self-aware and confident enough to embark on new journeys. This control allows you to feel motivated enough to believe that if you invest your hard work into something, you will reap great results.

While it is impossible to control all the external factors around you, it is possible to control how you feel about them. Taking control of your life begins with your thoughts and emotions—internal factors—which later translate into controlling your surroundings or external factors as well.

When things don’t work out according to plan, we feel as if everything is out of control. To avoid this, we must remember that taking control is a choice that we make for ourselves and that we can exercise that control over our lives whenever and however we wish.

12 Ways of Gaining Control When Things Don’t Work Out

So, what do you do when things don’t work out and you feel as though you have lost control? You gain it back.

Here are 12 simple ways you can get your life back on track.

1. Reflect Upon Yourself

A thorough life audit can clear your perspective. Since it enables you to focus on each area of your life separately, it gives you a better picture of where you stand at the moment. While you reflect upon your life, remember to include aspects such as your career, relationships, family, psychological and physical health, fitness, and overall motivation. This gives you more clarity regarding where you are and where you want to be in the future.

While you could carry out this reflection yourself, there are also many tools available to aid you in this life audit process. The Wheel of Life focuses on a diagram method to evaluate your life, but there are also multiple different lists of questions available to assess your situation.

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2. Identify the Cause of Failure

You had your life on right on track—then what happened? Before you restart your pursuit of motivation and productivity, you must identify the cause of what led to your downfall in the first place. This serves as an extremely important factor in the healing process, especially to ensure that you don’t repeat the same mistakes.

If you dig deep enough, you will find that some common triggers led to your spiral of negativity. Once you reflect on these triggers and what causes them, avoiding them becomes much easier. This way, you can easily get your life back on track when things don’t work out perfectly.

3. Be Confident

Confidence is the key to your success, especially when it comes to having control over your life. While showing up for work every day is important, showing up to achieve something is much more important.

When things don’t work out perfectly and continue to spread far beyond your control, it can be because of your lack of physical and mental confidence. To regain your confidence, think about the things that provide you with the most confidence and engage in habits that correlate to that. For instance, if you feel confident when you are physically healthy, go to the gym to retain your fitness.

4. De-Clutter

For a clear mind, you must have a clear plan. On average, every individual has around 70,000 thoughts per day. While it is impossible to keep a close record of every single one, it is highly recommended to list down some of the thoughts that are most important to you.

This may be a thought about cooking pasta for dinner tomorrow or that work meeting you have been constantly rescheduling. Maybe it is a project idea you had right before you went to sleep, or maybe it is about that old friend that you thought of while you sip your coffee.

This method of brain dumping will help you bring important ideas and tasks onto paper while making room for your mind to focus on each item individually.

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5. Condition Your Mind

When things don’t work out, you may think that you need to start building your good habits back again from scratch. However, that is not true. There are many habits and routines that one follows subconsciously—and you can easily make use of your current habits to restart different sorts of healthy behavior to gain control over your life again.

For instance, if your current routine is to come home from work, change into comfortable clothing, and watch Netflix—you can use that to condition your brain into a new habit. By changing into workout clothes instead, you may be motivated enough to head to the gym before getting to that TV series.

6. Start From Little Things

Each droplet makes an ocean. When things don’t work out optimally in life, remember that you still have control over the tiny little things that are around you. This could be as insignificant as organizing your drawer or cleaning your house—but it will surely help you regain control over your life. Remember that even tiny things can accumulate into massive life-changing momentum.

7. Be Patient

When things don’t work out, it can be very tempting to get back on track as soon as possible. As a result, you may find yourself rushing through everything and trying to do too much too fast. However, it is time to slow down and be patient with yourself. If you have lost control over your diet, it is easier to get back on track by starting to track calories again instead of meal prep and strict diets.

8. Remember Your Purpose

Self-awareness is necessary. To regain control over your life after you have slipped once, you need to take a step back and reflect upon the purpose of why you wanted control in the first place. Even in the harshest of weather, trees still stand still. This is because they have strong roots—or a strong purpose.

Magical sayings are essential for reminding yourself that even if you don’t know how what you’re hoping for will appear in your life, everything is possible—something that can be easily forgotten when things are not working out.

When things don’t work out perfectly, go back to finding your purpose and why you started. Let that bring you back to gaining control over your life.

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9. Time Management

This is an important life skill that takes years to master but is necessary for getting your life back on track. One of the possible reasons why you slipped in the first place could be because you were too overwhelmed by your surroundings. If there are too many things on your mind at once, you are subject to a mental breakdown sooner or later.

To avoid that, you need to focus on managing your time more efficiently and stressing yourself out less. While it is okay to engage in multiple projects, remember to be moderate with rationing your time, and be responsible enough to keep some time for your self as well.

10. Create Healthy Boundaries

Regaining control over your life requires you to prioritize the things that are most important to you and discarding the few that only stress you out. To do this effectively, it is recommended to set healthy boundaries around yourself that help you focus solely on the important things in life.

11. Breathe

When things don’t work out, it is okay to feel overwhelmed. One of the easiest ways to relax is by taking a long walk and reconnecting with the outdoors. Don’t focus on your speed, distance, or surroundings—just breathe and focus on yourself for this moment.

12. Give Yourself Time

When things don’t work out and you spiral down that hole of negativity, you could be quick to start blaming yourself for everything. As a result, you may also feel pressured to get back on track immediately.

However, you need to give yourself time. Healthy routines are built through consistency and patience, constant reevaluations, and learning how to do things differently. Since this process may take time, you need to be kind to yourself.

Final Thoughts

While there is no single solution to getting your life back on track immediately, you should know that there are multiple smaller steps you can take towards achieving your ultimate goal. Just follow these 12 ways of gaining control when things don’t work out, and you will eventually feel the improvement in your quality of life. After all, having control over our lives is the key to feeling content.

What You Can Do When Things Don’t Work Out

Featured photo credit: Jamie Street via unsplash.com

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