“In his article “More teaching, less threatening can lead to greater influence,”* Joseph Grenny referred to a reaction parents can have that actually leads to misunderstanding. This reaction, called FAE (“fundamental attribution error”) happens when a parent assigns negative motives to a child’s actions.

He told of a time when he bought his son a very expensive jacket, and then while eating, the son spilled syrup all down the front of the jacket. The son didn’t even seem to notice, and kept on eating. Mr. Grenny felt his blood boiling, and he felt his son didn’t appreciate the jacket, and was a “self-centered ingrate.”

Then comes the lesson. He says, “when I reflexively assumed that problem behavior was entirely due to his rotten motives, I committed the FAE.” Mr. Grenny says, “You can tell you’ve committed the FAE when your impulse is to preach, call names or threaten consequences. And it rarely works. You break free of the FAE by asking, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?”

Remember your assignment from a couple of days ago? If you did it, you have a list of times you might have assigned negative motives to an action (or actions) of a child in your life. The assignment now is to think back about each of those times. Did you feel that impulse to preach, call names, or threaten consequences?  If so, could it have changed things for the better if you asked yourself the question Mr. Grenny suggests:

“Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?”

If the child is small, you can ask, “Why would a child of this age and understanding do this?” In his case, Mr. Grenny’s thoughts were as follows: “I wondered whether other things might be at play. He was starving. He was hurrying. Maybe his mistake didn’t reflect bad motives, but a lack of ability. Maybe he wasn’t a self-centered punk, but a normal 10-year-old boy. Could it be true?” He thought it through, and realized that it COULD be true, and most likely was. He realized that “The problem was that he lacked skills, not morals.”

I loved what he said next – and I feel this is the key:

“When I saw him differently, my response to him changed markedly. And my influence increased. He learned about the cleansing power of club soda. He listened attentively as I demonstrated how a napkin could be fashioned into a bib. My influence increased as I became a teacher first, a motivator second.”

Bad behavior is more often due to a lack of skills than to bad motives. When we learn to recognize our tendency to commit the FAE,  and instead ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?” our influence efforts improve markedly.


* Deseret News Tuesday, July 8 2014