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Feeling understood, norms & pride

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusionthat it has taken place."

– George Bernard Shaw

Your mother has baked a chocolate cake and you’re alone in the kitchen with the cake. You’re trying to get into better shape but it’s right there, staring at you… Would you eat a piece?


It turns out it depends. A study showed that when left in a room with a chocolate cake, people were more likely to eat the cake if they were made to feel guilty if they ate it, rather than if they were encouraged to feel proud if they did not.


How we communicate matters.

The words we use, tone, approach, timing etc.

We all know that through our own experience.

The way someone talks to us, whether at home or at work, matters.


And yet, when we communicate with other people we often have blind spots.


How {not} to communicate effectively


Through working on different behavioral science projects involving communication of important information, I repeatedly come across such blind spots that sabotage the goal of the communication. Mistakes that professionals make irrespective of experience, age, profession, position or industry.


Here are three of the most common missteps:

Not understanding the context


Suppose you work in the Department of Environmental Protection and you’re looking to encourage people to eat less meat and more vegetables. You're trying to draft your messaging but have no clue as to what gets in the way of people doing what you're asking them to do.


Is it that most people have small repertoire of recipes?

Or perhaps that they perceive meat as more “masculine”?

Is it that they think they can't get enough protein off meat-free options?


Without understanding what drives a behavior, it's mission impossible to try and influence it.


The most common example in business is trying to increase sales without understanding the customers you're targeting.


What job are they trying to get done by buying your product?

How does their customer journey map out?

What obstacles are they facing - physical & psychological?


What to do instead: investigate and map out the entire journey of your target audience, to uncover how they experience it and the broader context.

Highlighting undesirable behaviors


A sign at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park said:


Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.


The sign was meant to prevent people from stealing pieces of petrified wood. Before it was installed, thefts were at 2.92%. With the sign, thefts climbed to 7.92%!

Almost three times as many people were stealing!


Why did this happen? Despite the good intentions of the National Park management they were actually promoting the stealing of petrified wood. They were validating the wrong behavior, making it seem normal.


When we highlight the undesirable behavior, we unwillingly make it easier for our audience to misbehave as well.


This is a trap we fall in way too often in business when we carelessly mention unfavorable statistics and trends in order to motivate people. Things like,

“No one in this department has reached their sales targets yet.”

“Most people are leaving their desks with the light lamps still on.”


What to do instead: When looking to nudge people in the right direction, highlight positive behaviors or trends, like “more and more people are doing X”.

Leveraging guilt


In an effort to encourage people to recycle more, Peterborough council in the UK ran a scheme with sticking labels that said “Waster” onto the bins of households who were not disposing of waste sustainably.

The result? Local citizens felt patronized, branding the stickers as ‘insulting and derogatory’.

Recycling behavior did not change.

The council cancelled the scheme and publicly apologized


Messages based around guilt or admonishment risk alienating the audience.


None of us like to be lectured to or told off, and our instinctive reaction is often to ‘double down’, defensively react against the message (and messenger), and rationalize our existing behaviors.


It's true that guilt can sometimes be an effective motivator for behavior change, but this tends to be true only when the behavior is very easy. If the behavior comes at some cost (e.g. monetary, or convenience), disengaging altogether from the message is the easier way to allay our guilt.


What to do instead: Try tapping onto the opposite feeling: creating a sense of pride for someone for behaving in a desirable way.

Question for you


What is one communication puzzle you're dealing with these days, at work or at home, that can improve in one of these three ways?

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