I took an art class in college, and our professor spent a long time teaching us how to critique each other’s work. In short, her guidance went like this.
DO SAY: “That doesn’t work for me.”
DON’T SAY: “That’s bad.”
At the time, I thought this was precious and oversensitive. I remember mocking it outside of class. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of this nuance. Her language is not perfect, of course. The phrase “that doesn’t work for me” can feel passive-aggressive. But the intention is on point.
She was teaching us to speak for ourselves, rather than to speak for everyone.
Imagine if we all did more of that.
After all, “that doesn’t work for me” is verifiably true. If you don’t like it, then it doesn’t work for you! But the phrase “that’s bad” is not verifiably true. Other people might think it’s good! I mean, Vincent Van Gogh was not very popular during his lifetime. His work became celebrated long after his death. As with so many things, there is no one universal “good” or “bad.”
I was thinking about this yesterday when I got looped in on a little Twitter argument. It began with a marketing executive named Adam Singer:
Adam and Mathias then volleyed back and forth, as people do on Twitter. Adam pointed to a YouTube video from a Stanford neuroscientist. Mathias, in turn, pointed to a podcast I made debunking the myth of dopamine. (Contrary to popular belief, dopamine is not driving your “addiction” to social media.) Now I was part of the conversation.
Then I realized: It’s because Adam, like so many people on social and IRL, did not follow my college art teacher’s rule.
HE DID NOT SAY: “This works for me.”
HE INSTEAD SAID: “I know what’s best for you.”
Adam’s reply: “V fair - I do think no cell phone when you wake up is still good advice!”
Sure! It is perfectly good advice. Maybe great advice!
It’s just not the only way to live.
So, let’s assume that we all...
a) have opinions about things, and
b) would like other people to share our opinions.
Put those two together, and you've got the makings of a polarized world. On issues large (policy!) and small (screens in the morning!), we seem to assume that (b) will be accomplished by just making (a) as loud as possible. But this isn't true. Lots of research shows that people are unswayed by both facts and aggressive pushing.
So what’s a more effective means of convincing others?
There's a large body of research on this, and I'm not professing to be the authority on it all. But, here’s an idea: What would happen if we stopped telling each other what to do, and instead just told each other what works for us?
It’s easier said than done, of course, but also an extremely valuable mode of communication. And I have a three-part theory why.
I was recently talking with Justin Mitchell, the founder and CEO of Yac. He gives his team a massive amount of flexibility, in part because he believes that everyone works differently. “I think it would surprise you how eclectic the different working styles of everyone at a company can be,” he says, “because you've never opened it up and said, ‘Work however you want to work.’”
Some people are best in three-hour sprints. Someone's sharpest in the morning. Someone else works amazingly after dinner. On and on. Right now, most companies force all these different kinds of workers to pull the same hours — in effect ensuring that we get the least effective versions of them all. What a waste.
We do not have universal experiences. And we do ourselves no favors by forcing universality.
Here’s a great term: the false consensus effect. It’s the psychological name for when people see their own “behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant, or inappropriate.”
In other words, people believe that their attitudes are common. They also believe that other attitudes are uncommon.
This can have profoundly isolating effects, according to Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who researches how to change behaviors in positive ways. For example, when we’re stuck on a problem, we often do not think to ask others for advice. Why? Because we assume they think like us — so why would they have a solution we don’t?
She’s validated this with research. In one study, for example, people developed better exercise habits simply by copying other people’s habits.
Above, we’ve established that we’re different but often don’t think we’re different. So what happens when someone tells us that we’re wrong and should think differently?
Psychologists have a word for this too. It’s called “reactance.”
“Psychological reactance is a negative emotional state that we feel when we feel like we are not in control of our behavior,” another Wharton professor, Jonah Berger, once told me for a podcast.
People don't like losing control, even if it's good for their health. They will push back, simply because you told them to do something. So how do you change someone’s behavior?
Jonah offered many strategies, but one of the most compelling is also the simplest: “Rather than telling them what to do, point out a gap between their attitudes, and their actions, or what they are doing and what they might recommend for someone else.”
A perfect example: Thailand was struggling to reduce people’s smoking, and anti-smoking ads were doing nothing. So it hired the ad agency Ogilvy Thailand, which came up with a brilliant campaign. They had children approach random smokers on the street, and ask for a light. The adults responded appropriately: They told the kids that smoking was dangerous and unhealthy. Then the kid handed them a card and walked away. It read, "You worry about me, but why not about yourself?"
These interactions were filmed and turned into commercials, which led to a 40% increase in calls to a Thai agency set up to help people stop smoking.
You should watch it. Totally brilliant.
People don’t like being told what to do. It feels like loss of control, and it’s also disorienting: After all, if we assume that others think like us, what are we to make of someone’s totally different attitude?
But when we share what works for us, it’s like we’re opening a door and then just leaving it open. We’re not forcing anyone inside. But the more that door stays open, the more intriguing it gets. The open door starts to speak: It says that there are other ways of thinking, and that, if you respect the person who opened the door, you might also want to adopt a little of what they’re doing.
I understand that this cannot apply in all circumstances. Murder, for example: We're not going to reduce crime on a "murder doesn't work for me" public policy. And I also understand that I did not just solve all the world's problems. But for what it's worth, most of our days are spent talking to individuals about things in the squishy middle. We spend our days seeking small converts. So we might as well be thoughtful about it.
For example, I’ll admit something to you: Although many smart people have told me not to check my phone first thing in the morning, I do it anyway. Why? Because it works for me. And also, because the alternative just seems fanciful.
In one of his tweets, Adam Singer offered some other things to do in the morning: “have coffee, shower, walk the dog, do yoga, go for a jog, clean your kitchen, do something in physical world (*esp* if the rest of your day involves screens)” — and all this makes me laugh. Do yoga? Go for a jog? I have two small children! There is nothing restful about my morning; it is simply me fulfilling a never-ending series of demands (“I want milk!” “Dad, help me!”). Briefly checking my phone is, in fact, the most relaxing part of my morning.
But whatever. If that works for him, great.
Checking my phone works for me.
You do what works for you. Then share it. Maybe it’ll work for someone else too.