In every waking hour we are being triggered by people, events, and circumstances that have the potential to change us. These triggers appear suddenly and unexpectedly… They can be pleasant, like a teacher’s praise that elevates our discipline and ambition—and turns our life around 180 degrees. Or they can be counter-productive, like an ice-cream cone that tempts us off our diet or peer pressure that confuses us into doing something we know is wrong. They can stir our competitive instincts, from the common workplace carrot of a bigger paycheck to the annoying sight of a rival outdistancing us. They can drain us, like the news that a loved one is seriously ill or that our company is up for sale. They can be as elemental as the sound of rain triggering a sweet memory.
In his latest book Triggers, Dr Goldsmith draws on insights gained from his experience to tell us how to leverage the power of triggers to spark positive change and make it last.
How would you define triggers?
A behavioral trigger is any stimulus that impacts our behavior. Triggers come in many forms:
Triggers can be external, or they can be internal. They can be daydreams; they can be thoughts. What is true about all triggers is: the trigger happens, it sets off an impulse, you act. By becoming aware of our typical triggers, we can change that sequence to:
trigger -> impulse -> awareness-> choice/adjust ->behavior
Adding awareness gives us a choice to adjust our behavior!
Once you are aware of your triggers, you can arrange to avoid them. If you cannot avoid them, you can anticipate problems that might arise and learn how to recognize the triggers and adjust your behavior in the moment.
Your interpretation of the environment as a flesh-and-blood character at war with us…
Our lives do not occur in a vacuum. They are usually the result of unappreciated triggers in our environment—the people and situations that lure us into behaving in a manner diametrically opposed to the colleague, partner, parent, or friend we imagine ourselves to be. These triggers are constant and relentless and omnipresent.
This is difficult enough, but adds in the environment, and there we have a significant challenge. I liken the environment to a flesh-and-blood character who, constantly unbeknownst to us, is triggering us back to old behaviors and holding us in a rut even more by triggering old behaviors.
Why is behavioral change so difficult to achieve?
There are three basic challenges to achieving positive, lasting behavioral change.
We cannot admit that we need to change—either because we are unaware that a change is desirable, or, more likely, we are aware but have reasoned our way into elaborate excuses that deny our need for change. In the following pages, we will examine—and dispense with—the deep-seated beliefs that trigger our resistance to change.
01 We do not appreciate inertia’s power over us. Given the choice, we prefer to do nothing—which is why I suspect our answers to “How long has this been going on?” are couched in terms of years
rather than days. Inertia is the reason we never start the process of change. It takes extraordinary effort to ‘stop’ doing something in our comfort zone (because it is painless or familiar or mildly pleasurable) in order to ‘start’ something difficult that will be good for us in the long run.
02 We do not know how to execute a change. There is a difference between motivation and understanding and ability. For example, we may be ‘motivated’ to lose weight but we lack the nutritional ‘understanding’ and cooking ‘ability’ to design and stick with an effective diet. Or we have understanding and ability but lack the motivation. Our behavior is shaped, both positively and negatively, by our environment—and a keen appreciation of our environment can dramatically lift not only our motivation, ability, and understanding of the change process, but also our confidence that we can actually do it.
How would you differentiate between encouraging (we want it) triggers and productive (we need it) triggers?
A trigger can be encouraging or discouraging. ‘Encouraging’ triggers push us to maintain or expand what we are doing. They reinforce us—like the finish line for a marathon runner. ‘Discouraging triggers’ push us to stop or reduce what we are doing. Chatting in a theater and hearing a barrage of “shhh!” is one such discouraging trigger.
“No matter how extreme the circumstances, when it comes to our behavior, we always have a choice.” Do we really have a choice in a world abundant in triggers?
We really do have a choice even in a world abundant in triggers. We can to a great extent control our environment so that it triggers our most desired behaviors. This means that instead of blocking us from our goals, the environment propels us toward them. And once moving towards our goals with this forward momentum, we are propelled towards them even and can choose to keep on this path even when there are triggers around us that are seemingly trying to steer us off course.
How can we achieve a seamless compliance between the planner/leader and the doer/follower in us?
When we make plans for the future or even just today, why do we so seldom, if ever, plan on distractions? Why do we make our plans as if we are going to live in a perfect world and be left alone to focus on our work or family or whatever it is that we are hoping to accomplish that day?
This state of being able to completely focus without distraction on whatever task we assign ourselves for the day has never happened in the past, yet we still plan as if this nirvana-like world will exist in the future. We plan as if we will be able to get down to work without accommodating the fact that life always intrudes to alter our priorities and test our focus.
In my coaching, I usually work with executive clients for eighteen months. I warn each client that the process will take longer than they expect because there will be a crisis. I cannot name the crisis, but it will be legitimate and real—for example, an acquisition, a defection, a major product recall—and it may dramatically extend the time they need to achieve positive change. They cannot predict it, but they should expect it—and it will distract them and slow them down.
Rather than trying to change the inevitable, it is far more constructive to accept it and even plan on a distraction or two coming your way during the day.
The power of active questions in boosting commitment and self-discipline…
When it comes to self-reflection, asking yourself active questions rather than passive questions changes the focus of your answers–and empowers you to make changes you would not otherwise consider!
Active questions are the alternative to passive questions. For instance, there is a huge difference between asking, “Do you have clear goals?” and “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?” The former is trying to determine your state of mind; the latter challenges you to describe or defend a course of action.
I challenge myself every day by answering 32 questions that represent behavior that I know is important, but that is easy for me to neglect given the pressures of daily life (ie, triggers). Recently, I have changed my first six questions to be active questions. This seemingly slight change has been dramatic! It has helped me alter my behavior for the better in such a dramatic way that I now teach all of my clients and students this method of self-reflection for positive behavioral change.
My six active questions are:
01 Did I do my best to increase my happiness?
02 Did I do my best to find meaning?
03 Did I do my best to be engaged?
04 Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
05 Did I do my best to set clear goals?
06 Did I do my best to make progress toward goal achievement?
How has Buddhist philosophy influenced your concept of AIWATT? How can AIWATT act as a delaying mechanism in the interval between trigger and behavior?
Often, during a conflict the interval between trigger and behavior is
practically, if not totally, non-existent. How do we manage this? We cannot cut conflict out of our lives. It is an unavoidable part of being human, whether we are CEOs, entrepreneurs, parents, spouses, engineers, or ditch diggers. In some cases, [it] is a good thing. It stimulates us to accomplish great things. Sometimes it is not a good thing. It drags us off course, eroding our relationships, stalling our careers and keeping us from becoming the people we want to become.
My experience with great leaders has led me to develop a simple formulation, one that can help you avoid pointless skirmishes and help you take on the challenges that really matter. Follow it, and you will dramatically shrink your daily volume of stress, unpleasant debate, and wasted time. I phrase it as a question: am I willing at this time to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?
AIWATT is not a universal panacea for all our interpersonal problems, but it has a specific utility. It is a reminder that our environment tempts us many times a day to engage in pointless arguments. And, it creates a split-second delay in our potentially prideful, cynical, judgmental, argumentative, and selfish responses
to our environment. This delay gives us time to consider a more positive response.
How can ‘structure’ help seize control over an unruly environment/overcome depletion?
Depletion is an environmental hazard. It is an external trigger and viewing it as such is a way of seeing the world anew and appreciating the demands placed on us by our constant efforts at self-regulation. For example, say you wake up later than usual with insufficient time for your morning workout. You tell yourself you will hit the gym that evening after work. But at day’s end, carrying your briefcase and
gym bag from the office, you think, “I can skip today. I’ll work out tomorrow morning.”
What is going on here? Why do our discipline and decisiveness fade at the end of the day, to the point where we opt to do nothing instead of doing something enjoyable or useful? It is not because we are inherently weak. It is because we are weakened. By the end of the day, we are worn down and vulnerable to foolish choices.
Given that depletion is an external trigger that can lead us not to achieve our goal of becoming the person we want to be, what do we do? How do we combat this environmental trigger? The answer is structure. Structure is how we overcome depletion. In an almost magical way, structure slows down how fast our discipline and self-control disappear. When you have structure, you do not have to make as many choices; you just follow the plan. And the net result is you are not being depleted as quickly.
Success is all about structure. As a matter of fact, we do not get better, we do not change our behavior, and we do not become successful without it! Yet, most people do not. Not only is having and utilizing structure a challenge, but you have the added test of incorporating the right structure–meaning a structure that fits the situation and personalities involved, including yours.
Why do we settle for ‘good enough’ behavior?
‘Good enough behavior’ is when our striving to be better stops, our lapses into old behavior become more frequent, and we begin to coast on our reputation. There are four environments that trigger ‘good enough’ behavior.
01 our motivation is marginal. If your motivation for a task or goal is in any way compromised for any reason—for instance, we do not take it seriously, we do not have the skills, we think what we have done is ‘good enough.’
02 we are working pro bono. Pro bono is an adjective, not an excuse. If you think doing folks a favor justifies doing less than your best, you are not doing anyone any favors. Better than nothing is not even close to good enough—and good enough, after we make a promise, is never good enough.
03 we behave like ‘amateurs’. We segregate the parts we are good at from the parts we are not—and treat our strengths as the real us. The weaknesses are an aberration; they belong to a stranger, someone we refuse to acknowledge as us. This is how we confer amateur status on ourselves and secure our license for good enough.
04 we have compliance issues. We all have compliance issues, admitted or not. We all resist being told how to behave, even when it is for our own good or we know our failure to comply will hurt someone. When we engage in non-compliance, we are not just being sloppy and lazy, we are thumbing our noses at the world, announcing, “The rules don’t apply to us. Don’t rely on us. We don’t care.”
How can becoming the trigger—being an irresistible force as in Nadeem’s case—help in changing the environment?
Nadeem was one of my coaching clients. He dove into the change process. He was highly motivated. He did everything that he was asked to do. Almost. There was one person, Simon, who was a negative trigger for Nadeem. Even when it came to behavioral change, Nadeem dug in his heels and said, “I’ll meet him halfway. He’s got to change too!” I told him, “Simon’s change is not your responsibility. You only control how you behave. Go 80% of the way towards him and see what happens.” He did. He apologized to Simon for past behavior, and he expressed his commitment to try to be better. As part of my job as executive coach, I followed up with Nadeem frequently. And, it did not surprise me that Nadeem got better. All the structural motivators were in place, including regular follow-up. The surprise to me was how rapidly his Simon problem vanished. It happened in half a year.
That is what happens when we dive all the way into adult behavioral change—with 100% focus and energy—we become an irresistible force rather than the proverbial immovable object. We begin to change our environment rather than be changed by it. The people around us sense this. We have become the trigger.
The interplay between us and our environment as delineated in the ‘circle of engagement’…
When we use the ‘daily questions’ and ‘active questions’ process to think about our environment in the context of fundamental desires like happiness, purpose and engagement, it makes us reflect on how we are measuring up in those areas—and why. We are not only awake in our environment, we are actively participating in it—and the people who matter to us recognize this. In most contexts, engagement is the most admirable state of being. Is there higher praise coming from a partner or child than to hear them tell us, “You are always there for me”? Or anything more painful than to be told, “You were never there for me”? That is how much engagement matters to us. It is the finest end product of adult behavioral change.
When we embrace a desire for awareness and engagement, we are in the best position to appreciate all the triggers the environment throws at us. We might not know what to expect—the triggering power of our environment is a constant surprise—but we know what others expect of us. And we know what we expect of ourselves. The results can be astonishing. We no longer have to treat our environment as if it is a train rushing toward us while we stand helplessly on the track waiting for impact. The interplay between us and our environment becomes reciprocal, a give-and-take arrangement where we are creating it as much as it creates us. We achieve an equilibrium which I describe as the ‘circle of engagement’!