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Playing with play dough and how that links to behavioural flexibility

When my two boys were much younger we often played with pipe cleaners, play dough (home made was best of course!) and plasticine. We could create infinite different shapes and figures because they are so bendy.

Imagine if we were always this flexible and, at any moment, be exactly what we needed to be to achieve the best outcome.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of flexible is to be ‘able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances’, or ‘(of a person) ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances’.

Behavioural flexibility means having the ability to secure a response from another person by varying our own behaviour. It means we have a range of responses to any given situation rather than having the same habitual, and therefore limiting, responses.

I have a question I would like you to consider. What is the definition of insanity?

The response I’m looking for is: ‘repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result’!

When we get the same response from people when we interact with them (and it’s not useful), maybe it’s time to try something different – and achieve a different result.

For example, maybe you have a tense relationship with a teammate and you believe that they don’t respect you or value your opinion. Think about how you usually interact with them. Are you defensive, or accusatory, or do you just not share your opinion (the silent treatment)? Now think about what you could do differently in your interactions to break out from your habitual, and maybe limiting, responses.

Some years ago I had a particularly challenging relationship with a member of a committee I chaired. I perceived that Bob didn’t value the opinions of anyone else on our committee and went out of his way to be difficult and challenging. This opinion was shared by most of the committee. As a result our meetings became progressively more difficult and we achieved very little.

After learning about the need to have more behavioural flexibility I decided to try it out with Bob. I changed how I responded to him during meetings (previously my body language had my body angled away from him, I totally minimised eye contact, and as Chair, I was able to enforce strict guidelines about how long anyone could talk about a particular issue, to limit what he could say).

The small changes I made were to increase eye contact, face Bob directly and actively listen, and respond back indicating that I was seeking to understand what he was saying. I also asked challenging questions (rather than trying to rush the conversation and move onto the next agenda item) to get him to really consider what he was saying.

Over the next few weeks and months, Bob’s behaviour began to change, which created a bit of a snowball effect with other committee members as their behaviours also began to change. We ended up achieving a lot of great things through that committee. And while I personally still don’t like Bob, we found that we could work together constructively. My ability to respond differently, and get a different result, certainly contributed to that outcome.

An activity created by John Grinder (co-creator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming [NLP]) helps us to increase our behavioural flexibility.

He suggests that each night before going to sleep, we review our day and create three different ways on how we could have responded to events. This way we will automatically build up our behavioural flexibility, and discover that we can respond more appropriately to the world around us when similar situations arise in the future.

My questions are:

  • How are you currently responding to people who you may have a difficult relationship with?
  • How could you respond differently to create a more constructive relationship?

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