Use What You Don’t Want

Jetty Over Water

Use what you don't want


In which Mike learns how to focus on what he does not want

“Tell me something” said Mike, “Why doesn’t this work with everybody?”

“What do you mean?” asked John

“Well, I’ve been practicing my decision making. Virtually all the time now I ask myself what I want, in fact just before this meeting I asked myself what I wanted from our session and what I want is the answer to this question that’s been bothering me for the last week or so.”

“Go on” said John.

“You see, It’s a brilliant question ‘What do you want’, it’s worked for me so well I’ve been using it everywhere; I’ve tried it with my boss and my team and the kids, everywhere, but I’ve noticed something. Somehow, for some of them, it doesn’t work, in fact there are some conversations I’ve had where the question has nearly started a row. I’m puzzled. It’s been such an eye opener for me, so why not for everyone?”

It’s not what you ask, it’s how you ask

“Hmm” said John “Well first you have to understand that ‘What do you want?’ is probably the most powerful question in the world so it can be dangerous in the wrong hands! For people who live like passengers, this question can be disturbing. It calls attention to the difference between what they want and the life they are living now. Sometimes they will react angrily. You have to be sensitive to this.”

“Tone of voice matters a lot too. Sometimes you need to soften the question a bit, for example:”

  • ‘I’m wondering… What is it you really want?’
  • ‘I’m curious… What is it you really want?’

“Use a softer tone of voice or you could try asking the question in another way”

  • ‘Just curious, what’s your real outcome here?’
  • ‘What’s your ultimate outcome?’

“Another way is to make it sound like a joint question:”

  • ‘What are we really aiming for here?’, ‘What are we really hoping to achieve with this?’, ‘What’s our ultimate outcome?’

“Sometimes by gently asking people to focus on the ultimate outcome (what they really want) other options for getting it begin to suggest themselves.”

“I see” said Mike “I may have been a bit pushy but I’ve got a feeling that there’s more to it than this. Some people just really don’t like this question.”

“You’re right”, said John, “There is something else. In fact, it’s quite a big something else. It’s a fact that for about 50% of the population the question ‘What do you want’ is totally useless, even unsuitable.”

“What do you mean, useless and unsuitable?”

John gave a rueful grin. “Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier. You see, unless you are a highly motivated, goal-seeking person who relentlessly uses positive language all the time, the chances are that you spend at least some of your time thinking about things you don’t like and don’t want.”

“Remember the boy on the wall? Some of us have had years of practice focused on the downside, the dangers, what could go wrong and what we don’t want to happen. We’ve been positively reinforcing this for years and if we are parents, we can probably hear ourselves doing it to our children as well. We’re very good at it.”

“And this is why the first way may not have worked for some people. Because ‘what do you want’ is such a foreign and sometimes threatening question. Even now, I sometimes seize up and go completely blank when I ask myself that question. We’ve had no practice with it and for some people, it is such a contrast to their normal thinking that it just does not work.”

“That’s also why motivational texts and speeches by goal-driven sports people have no lasting impact on the behaviour of their audience. For most people, listening to this kind of motivational talk only serves to reinforce the barely acknowledged belief that ‘It’s alright for them but I’m just not like that’.”

“Thankfully, help is at hand. All you have to do is learn to focus on what you don’t want. And since at least half the population are very good at this, you should find it easy to use with yourself and with them.”

Away From Motivation

“Remember my car example? Having a firm focus on the downside, on the danger, on what you do not want is a bit like driving around by only looking in the rear view mirror. You reverse away from what you don’t like until you sort of find somewhere where there is nothing so bad that you need to move away from it.”

“We call this an ‘Away From’ motivation because it describes someone who moves away from pain rather than towards pleasure. It’s the classic pattern of the yo-yo dieter. When I reach 15 stone/210 lbs I hate it, feel fat and uncomfortable, clothes no longer fit well so I’m highly motivated to move away from this. It’s too painful. As I successfully lose weight, though, the pain lessens and as the pain fades away, so does my motivation. The only way to regain my motivation is to gain the weight again. So I yo-yo.”

“That’s nuts!” Mike interrupted “You gain weight as a way of gaining motivation?”

“Does seem stupid, doesn’t it? Look around you though. It’s the classic pattern of the yo-yo dieter or the person who waits for things to get really bad before doing something about it. How many people do you know who stay in a job, or relationship or social life that they don’t really like but is not bad enough to do anything about? How many people do you know who talk about ‘No pain, no gain’ or describe gritting their teeth and making themselves do things. These are the ‘Away From’ people.”

“And, for them, goals just do not work because they lack the essential motivation of having to move away from something.”

The Second Most Powerful Question In The World

“Remember I promised you the second most powerful question in the world? Here it is. If you are an ‘Away From’ type person or you know people who are primarily motivated this way then asking them ‘What do you want?’ probably does not work. Much better is the question ‘What do you want, [pause] instead?’.”

He looked across at Mike. “Think of something trivial in this office that you do not like.” Mike glanced at his phone “Here’s one, I don’t like the menu system on my phone, it’s a pain and I’m always forgetting how to find the settings.”

“OK. What do you want instead?”

“I see what you’re doing here. OK, what I want instead is a menu system that is easy and where the choices are obvious. Something that looks as if it has been designed for normal people.” He paused. “Oh, I get it. You’ve got me to switch my focus haven’t you? Instead of moaning about the phone I’m now thinking about the solution.”

“Spot on. First you go with your natural focus – the moan, the irritation or the thing you don’t like. Then ask yourself “What do I want, instead?” To answer this question you have to take your eyes off the rear view mirror and glance in some other direction. The question causes you to search around until you find something you like; then you can steer towards it. It also feels different because it releases different chemicals in the body. And it changes the script you run in your head. You may not have been aware how negative that script was until you try this.”

“And the best thing of all is that it is totally non-threatening. ‘What do you want instead?’ You’ll find you need to be gentle with the ‘Away From’ people, and yourself, because you and they are out of practice. You may have to ask this several times and catch them if it turns into a complaint again.”

Change Your Communication Style

“If you are an ‘Away From’ parent your communication style may well be full of warnings and lurid descriptions of the consequences of things going wrong – don’t run across the road, you’ll be killed!

“You owe it to your children to give them the option of considering what they should move towards as well. Just because you use consequences and pain to motivate yourself does not mean this works for your children.”

“So just as you are about to yell ‘don’t run across the road, you’ll be killed’ consider what thought you want to leave them with instead ‘remember to look both ways and use the crossing, wait until the traffic stops and get across safely’. Their preferred motivator may be moving towards something. If nothing else, remembering to do both makes you a more fully rounded communicator.”

“I can see this” said Mike, “I can see that I’ve done this to my kids and I know people I work with and who work for me who are just like this. This is brilliant. ‘What do you want instead?’ he asked slowly, rolling the words off his tongue.

John laughed, “Let me give you a couple of examples”

What do you want, instead?

“Once, a long time ago, I was doing appraisal interviews with my team leaders when I saw this question work really well. Let’s call her Chris. She was one of my team leaders, relatively new to the role and this was her first appraisal interview with me. I started in the normal way ‘How’s it going?’ This unleashed a stream of complaints, moans, things she didn’t like, things she thought we were doing badly etc. I waited for her to finish and then said ‘OK Chris, thanks for that, it’s quite a list, so what do you want instead?’ There was a long silence while she processed the question and then admitted that she didn’t know. ‘Why don’t you go and have a think about what you want instead? Come back and we’ll make a plan to make the changes you want.’ Off she went. She had come to the meeting with her focus so firmly fixed on what she did not want and did not like, all the things she wanted to move away from, that she had barely thought about what she wanted to move towards. She had arrived with problems without bringing any solutions.”

“This question ‘What do you want instead?” will help you and help the people you work with to understand what they want to move towards.”

“Moans, complaints, whines, disillusionment, anger, disappointment, blame, dissatisfaction are all symptoms of a passenger mentality. Being asked the question ‘What do you want instead?’ naturally helps them search around for something they want to move towards and helps them become more of a driver.”

“Practice this. Ask yourself and ask others. When your children complain about something ask them ‘What do you want instead?’ When your colleagues complain about the rubbish TV they watched at the weekend ask them ‘What would prefer to watch instead?’ When tempted to complain about your boss ask yourself ‘What do I want instead?’ When you hear yourself keeping up a running commentary of dissatisfaction tell yourself ‘OK, I hear you. Now, what do you want instead?’

Remember, anxiety (and moaning) are a sign that you are not focussing on what you want

John paused “Here’s another story where I nearly made a huge mistake by not paying attention to different motivational styles”

Joanne And The Budget

“I learned about the effect of towards and away from communication the hard way, by managing people. I am a natural away from person. I routinely leave things until they get so bad I have to change them (until the pain gets bad enough). My default way of motivating myself is to remind myself of the consequences of ‘not doing’ and issue warnings to myself about what to watch out for. Because this is the default way of motivating myself I tend to use it (if I’m not careful) as my default style when communicating with others.”

“I remember clearly calling a meeting with my team leaders about the state of our budget. We had done well against a stiff debt collection target but we needed to do better. Jo was sitting opposite me and, as I launched into a series of warnings, admonitions and what if’s, I could see her motivation literally draining away. Earlier in the week I’d been doing some training about away from and towards styles so perhaps I was very conscious of it but I could see that the more I talked the more I managed to turn off her motivation. You see I knew something about Jo. She was my star debt collector, motivated, committed and relentless and here I was doing my best to drain it all away. What I knew about Jo was that she was the kind of person who was virtually 100% ‘towards’ in everything she did. What motivated her were targets, achievement, restless energy towards a goal and hitting milestones. In other words I was using the wrong strategy, I was communicating with my star player using my preferred style not hers; I was communicating with my star player in exact the opposite way to how she best motivated herself.”

“Fortunately when I saw this happening I was able to adjust but it was a close call. I could have walked from that meeting leaving my team leaders limp and drained of motivation. Has this ever happened to you?”

“If you find yourself focused firmly on the downside, collecting uncomfortable situations as a way of charging up your motivation then it’s time to play with ‘What do you want instead?’ Whenever you communicate with others make sure you give the ‘Away From’ people things to avoid and the ‘Towards’ people things to aim at.

Learn To Focus On What You Don’t Want

“This is great” said Mike “But how do I use this to help me figure out what I want?”

“All of us have a bit of ‘Away From’ focus in our lives and for this next week I want you to unearth all of them or as many as you can dig up. I want you to find all the questions or parts of your life where you spend more time thinking about what you don’t want or don’t like instead of what you want.”

“Here’s the worksheet. Start with something simple again like, say, your job. Now think of something you don’t like about your job. For example: ‘I don’t like breathing recycled air all day’ Write that down on the left. Then ask yourself the question ‘What do I want instead?’ and write down whichever answer or answers come to mind. It could be anything from ‘I want an outdoor job’ to ‘I want to go for a walk at lunchtime’.”

“Start simple and start with a good old moan about all the things you do not like or do not want. Also include those things that you know you don’t want in the future – capture them all – even things like ‘I never want to be an accountant’. Aim for quantity here rather than quality. Then follow the instructions on the sheet.”

Mike had already drifted off into a daydream making a list of all the things he didn’t want. He barely registered John smiling to himself as he left. He put the worksheet to one side and fired up a new document. This was going to be a big list.

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