“Please, don’t tell me what I did wrong. Tell me what I did right.” Has that thought crossed your mind or have you uttered those words before? Like a photographer who uses their camera lens to focus on an object that is either close-up or far away, throughout life, we tend to do the same. So, what do you prefer to focus on? Those things that are right v. wrong, the details of the past and present v. the blurry future? The obscure?
Words, written, texted, emailed, or spoken, evoke emotional responses. Why is that? Aren’t they simply a combination of letters that when put in a sequence allows us to communicate with each another? And yet, another compounding factor in communication occurs when the person you are speaking with or writing to does not necessarily receive the message in the exact same context that it was intended to be delivered. As a result, miscommunication occurs, emotions spark, and the process breaks down, until, hopefully, each individual finds resolution in mutual understanding.
Imagine communicating without emotional responses, without praise or criticism. How would you design an atmosphere where a teacher and student interact to create an environment of learning without the use of language? Perhaps you remember reading about American psychologist and behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, who used mice in scientific experiments to elicit either a positive, negative, or neutral response to external stimuli, referred to as operant conditioning?
Operant conditioning is where an individual is either rewarded or style of learning, a person associates between a particular behavior and a consequence (Skinner, 1938).
I recently listened to a talk radio show who interviewed an orthopedic surgeon who used clickers with his residents to teach them proper techniques without saying, “Good job! Great job! That’s right!” Instead, when the doctor was teaching his students about how to tie sutures in surgery, he pressed a clicker when the student performed the act without error. Once the student received five clicks in a row, they moved on to master the next skill-set. Repetition of the activity created muscle memory. The surgeon explained that high-performing students who learned quickly may hear, ‘Good job!’ after passing an exercise. Whereas, a slower learner who requires additional hands-on training and encouragement, receives a ‘That was awesome! Great job!’, from the instructor after their performance. The high-performing student, upon hearing their colleague’s feedback, may feel dejected and ask themselves, “How can I receive that kind of praise?” As a result, the teachable moment elicited a negative emotional response from the student, when in fact, it wasn’t intended.
Operant conditioning, clicker training is used in all kinds of coaching, from horses, dolphins, to dogs, to dancers, golfers, and students. Clickers are even being used with those with autism. For the hearing impaired, flashing lights can be used instead. Positive behaviors and purposeful actions are reinforced; emotions and habits are removed.
At the conclusion of the radio interview, I chucked to myself, thinking of the ‘what if and what’s next,’ scenarios. Will we begin seeing clicker training in marital and family counseling? Imagine not talking with your spouse or kids, simply reinforcing their good behaviors by pressing a clicker after they successfully picked up their dirty laundry off the floor, stopped drinking directly from the milk carton, or put the toilet seat back down. Click. Click. Click. No hugs, no kisses, no ruffled hair, or pats on the back.
While I’m not a firm believer of absolutes, an ‘all or nothing’ theory, I do think that common sense must be the common denominator in any solution. I do subscribe to the thought that there has got to be a balance of expressing love and feelings with constructive feedback. After all, emotions are what make us human.
About Katie Hart Smith
Katie Hart Smith’s column, “From the Heart,” touches the heart, inspires, and entertains. Smith, a published author for over twenty years, believes that words, written or spoken, have power. To learn more, visit www.katiehartsmith.com.