The Dark Side of Habit

Last month, I wrote about the power of habit.  I recently had two experiences with people I know well that reminded me there is also a dark side to habit.

The closer the relationship, the more we think we “know” a person, the more we form habits or patterns in those relationships. If they do X, we respond with Y. If they say Z, we respond with A and so on.

Sometimes it isn’t even the person in front of us that triggers habitual behavior, but someone else, a former boss perhaps with whom we had a great relationship; and we pattern our behavior with our new boss based on that experience and wonder why it isn’t going as well.

Habits are shortcuts. As I shared last month, activity habits can serve us by making us both more efficient and more effective in our daily lives. Response habits on the other hand, can inadvertently damage our relationships.

A couple of weeks ago, I had two experiences that reminded me of some of my response habits and how often I use them.

The first was with a client who was in the midst of a big decision. He is the sort of person who likes to “think out loud”.  I know this about him, and what I forgot was when he says “I want to run this by you”, what that means, I want to think out loud.

Instead, in my zeal to be helpful, I forgot what I knew. And, started asking questions and offering my perspective. After all, what he said was “I want to run this by you”. When he reminded me for the third time that “he had already considered that”, I finally got it and went back to listening. And, responded based on who is in front of me. What a wonderful reminder, yet again, to pause.

The second experience was with my husband. We both love to cook and over the course of nearly 27 years, we have slipped into a pattern. He is the chef, I am the sous chef. This works. And, every now and then, I am the chef and he is the sous chef. This doesn’t work so well. The reason is our response patterns are based on the first scenario, i.e. he leads, I follow. Here’s what usually happens. I start prepping, he comes over to look at what I am doing, I feel “supervised”, I don’t like being “supervised”, so I get huffy and what started as a fun couples activity, ends up, not so fun.

After the situation with my friend, and the blow up about cooking the next day, I tried something different the next time we cooked. When my husband asked me to do something I thought was obvious, and I was already planning to, instead of saying “do you really think I wasn’t going to do that?”, I simply said “okay”. The result, we had fun cooking together. I tried it again the next time we cooked, this time working together on the same dish which historically has been a danger zone. It worked again, we were laughing and having fun. Not easy to break those response habits, and the positive reinforcement certainly is reminding me to keep trying.

Perhaps next time a friend or a family member, or an employee, starts to behave in an expected manner, what if instead of responding with habit, we looked with fresh eyes, and asked questions, just as we would do with someone we don’t know at all and for whom we have no expectations?

On November 14, my Vistage CEO group is hosting one of our semi-annual guest days. If you or someone you know would like to learn more about Vistage, this is a low-key way to meet our members and hear a great speaker, Andrea Simon, who asks “Who will be your customers in three years?” Please contact me directly for an invite: Elisa K Spain.

For more about the members of the group click here

For more about the speaker on November 14, click here

You can read more of my blogs and leadership quotes here.