The more someone tells you to do something, the less you feel like doing it. It’s a law, apparently – the law of psychological reactance.

The reactance effect makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been talking about it for years. It’s part of my explanation of why facilitated training is more effective than chalk-and-talk; why Clean Language works; and why self-organising is good for business.

Another way of putting the same idea would be, “When you’re telling, you’re not selling.” Or, think of Tom Sawyer when he refused to let the other boys help him whitewash the fence.

I didn’t know it had an official name until last week. But apparently psychological reactance has been widely studied since 1966.

In the excellent Instant Influence, Michael Pantalon says there have been literally thousands of studies demonstrating the effect. For example, students who were encouraged to avoid certain tasks suddenly became excited by them. People threatened with dire consequences if they didn’t floss their teeth… didn’t floss their teeth. And so on.

“The law of psychological reactance is hard to disobey,” he says.

To find a way round reactance, Pantalon’s Instant Influence model, like Clean Language, emphasises personal autonomy.

He suggests setting a choiceful pre-frame with anyone you want to influence. “This decision is really up to you. I have my own ideas but the choice is yours,” and so on.

That set me wondering: is that approach more or less “Clean” than just implying autonomy, as standard Clean Language protocols suggest?

What do you think? Please comment below.

  • Thanks to Richard Kasperowski whose new book helped nudge me towards writing this post. His “High Performance Building Blocks” for teams have Positive Bias as the foundation stone, with Freedom (autonomy) coming next. Might reactance provide an argument for swapping them around?

    3 replies to "Don’t Tell Me What To Do!"

    • Pablo

      This reminds me the works of Gretchen Rubin and in particular Questioners in her model

    • Sharon Small

      Great article Judy,

      I often tease that I got into Clean because I don’t like being told what to do and conversely I don’t like telling other people what to do either (other than my husband and daughter …lol).

      I would really have to read Pantalons book to give an educated answser and at first blush the work around “This decision is really up to you. I have my own ideas but the choice is yours,” has a taste of ‘you probably have ideas, but they are not going to be as good as mine’ and when I first read it I thought if sombody said that to me …. I would probably stop the interaction … As it is presented I would say it was less clean, in that the intent is to create the sense of choice, while subtly implying that their choice might not be as good, educated, informed as theirs. And, having said that it truly would depend on the person saying it and it delivery.

      In NVC they talk about the difference between a request and a demand. The words and tone can be the same, the difference is how you, the asker/demander respond when the person doesn’t do what you wanted them to. Is this comment genuine to the speaker or is it a subtle (or not so subtle) attempt to simply get what they want? Perhaps an agreement, a decision in their favor, more information to utilize in the sale strategy ….

      Even Clean questions can be utilized as a manipulative tool if utilized with malicious or selfish intent. And intent is one of those funny words that have an internal dynamic related to a persons values, beliefs, sense of integrity, congruence … all quite heady stuff. And yes, somehow, most of us have the capability, most often, most of the time, to model when someone is not holding our best interest at heart or not.

      I am not sure about the phrase “implying autonomy as Clean Language standard protocols suggest.” I guess where my mind goes is to the word encourage. I would rephrase that as ‘encourage autonomy.” And that is part of the fun and challenge of Clean, semantics.
      Without being with you in person it is difficult to ask what kind of implying is that implying? And we might find with a few clean questions we are closer rather than further on our view while using two different conceptual words.

      Really good stuff to think about especially as in my experience Clean Language followers have a desire to be facilitative rather than manipulative. And the sheer act of running a business often requires the use and merging of current models of sales.

      When I make an offer, a choice, I just know for me, I have to be very clear that a “no” or decision / choice away from what I want to have happen is just fine. More than just fine, truly ok and I have left the interaction with the same good will I had coming in.

    • Dr Karen

      I`ve lived and talked about reactance for years. I`ve even developed the notion of “self-reactance” for how I respond to my own attempts to impose self-discipline or muscle my way through things. I’ve developed all sorts of personal strategies for sneaking up on the reactivity.

      So I can say from my own experience and highly acute reactivity levels that Clean Language doesn’t (or hasn’t) activated those particular alarm bells. On the other hand, Pantalon’s phrase: “This decision is really up to you. I have my own ideas but the choice is yours,” makes me want to say – you’re right, it’s my choice and I’ll go with Me, thanks so much.” What works much better for me is to make sure it’s a conversation, not a hidden “telling”: e.g., “Hmmm, this reminds me of a situation where I….but that might not apply to you of course”; “do you want other ideas?”; “how can I be helpful here?”.

      I think Clean Language does this latter by seeking for clarification — and in the act of clarifying, there is no need for reactance to push back — like aikido, there is no resisting force. But/and, sometimes I want more than my own clarifications and musings and in this case I (or my Reactnace, at least 😉 would rather have the Clean conversation first, then the invitation to share back and forth with brainstormings. Goals, commitments, and accountability structures pretty much ensure IT won’t happen. For me and my Reactance, at least. This may not apply to others’ Reactance habits. 😉

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