Positively Reinforce Your Deltas

If you say no – and the other person stops – thank them!


A delta is a signal that something is wrong and that the other person should stop. I am a mom. My delta is “NO!” When I say that, I need my kid to stop what he is doing. If he stops, I need to reward him and thank him and let him know he did good. Why? Because he stopped when I asked him to. That’s good.

The mistake most of us make is that when we ask someone to stop doing something, it’s because what they were doing is not good. So, we tell them to stop. They stop. Then we lecture them or punish them for stopping. And yeah, I know, you think you are punishing them for whatever it was they did wrong. But that’s not actually how it’s being experienced by the recipient. Just ask any mom who complains that their kid doesn’t listen to them when they tell them to stop.

In order to change the behavior for the better, you have to be strategic about how you respond. Which means, when you issue a delta, and the person who received it stops, you thank them!!!!

It works the same way in bullying situations. Last month I was doing a question and answer session for a law firm that had taken one of my online courses on bullying. (see: http://humanistlearning.info/retaliation1/).

They asked some really good questions. Lawyers can be – aggressive. We pay them to be aggressive, so that’s usually a good thing. However, it’s not good when it’s turn on a fellow employee or one of the aides. So we discussed using a delta to interrupt those interactions to let the lawyers know when they are going too far.

But issuing the delta to interrupt the dynamic playing out is just the first step. Then what? Well, in the moment, is not the time to fix a communication problem. However, in the moment, you need to positively reinforce your target if they stop, even if it’s for a short time.

The mistake people make is that – when they issue a delta – they want the behavior to stop. Once it’s stopped, they then start explaining why the behavior was wrong, which is experienced as a negative by the recipient. Example: you tell a kid no because you want them to stop. When they stop you lecture them and then perhaps punish them. You do this with a kid and what they learn is that no means they are in trouble and will experience something bad. This doesn’t encourage them to stop because you are essentially punishing them for stopping. What you actually want them to learn is that no means you need them to stop. If they do stop, good things happen. (ie: not a lecture – that can come at another time). We have to be very intentional in our responses so that we don’t pair negative associations with the behavior we actually want. You have to reward your child for stopping even if you are freaked out and angry.

The same is true with adults. If you issue a delta (we discussed using the word respect or compassion or work with people you like – whatever it is), and your coworker or the target of your delta stops, you then want to thank them immediately. If they start doing it again – issue the delta again. If they stop again, thank them. You can have the conversation about what happened and how to improve it later. You just want to avoid – at all costs – making the delta, whatever the language is for that, negative. You want to positively reinforce a correct response to the delta – which is to stop. If they do – thank them. This is why I said it’s best to do this from a place of compassion so that you minimize the likelihood of it being experienced as negative by the recipient of your delta.

Of course, if you do this with a stranger, they are going to ask questions, like why do you keep saying compassion when I’m mad? You can respond with an apology and – explain that in your office, when a conversation gets heated we say compassion to remind ourselves and them that the best way to get through the discussion without taking it personally is to remember to be compassionate.