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Bringing Out the Best in People
During Conversations

When we decide to focus on the positive in our dealings with other people, they're likely to respond in accordance with our expectations. How do we make the most of this truism in everyday life?

By Loren Ekroth

When conversing with people, we have an opportunity to bring out the best in them. To do so, we must act toward them as if we expect the best.

Pygmalion Effect

When we act toward people as if we expect outstanding behavior from them, we are applying a principle known as the Pygmalion Effect.

Widely validated by social science research, this principle says that as we communicate our expectations of people with various cues, they tend to respond to our cues by adjusting their behavior to match them.

Ancient Greek mythology has a story in which Pygmalion, then a king of Cyprus, carved a statue of a perfect woman. Then, through his belief and desire (along with the help of the goddess of Venus), the statue came alive.

This story was popularized by British playwright George Bernard Shaw and later in the American musical, My Fair Lady, in which Professor Higgins changed an uneducated street girl and flower peddler into a proper lady who spoke and acted like a socialite.

Example of the principle applied

A stunning example of this principle at work shows up in the research of Rosenthal and Jacobson (1971) who randomly labeled two groups of elementary students as 'potential achievers' and 'non-achievers,' then shared that information with their teachers.

As a consequence, the teachers acted toward the 'achievers' differently, such as spending more time with them, being more encouraging and supportive with a 'you can do it' attitude. From these students the teachers expected 'dramatic intellectual growth.'

And they got it.

When Rosenthal and Jacobson returned a few months later and re-tested the children, they found that the students labeled as having potential improved their IQ scores significantly, whereas the 'non-achievers' had not.

Similar results have been demonstrated in the supervisor-employee relationship. In both civilian and military settings, when supervisors acted toward their subordinates in ways that suggested high expectations of productivity, the higher productivity resulted.

A related principle of Dale Carnegie

Long before this research was done, human relations guru Dale Carnegie wrote, 'Become genuinely interested in other people.' When we are genuinely interested in others, really curious about them, they feel respected and valued.

Implied in our interest is the suggestion that they have a lot to offer. As we show our interest, they tend to become more interesting, more creative, and more capable.

Many of the cues we communicate to others are expressed during conversation but are non-verbal. For example, our facial expressions of interest and our level of enthusiasm as shown by body and voice. Still others are verbal, such as asking questions to draw out a person's ideas and by offering praise and encouragement.

Bifocal vision

Bifocal vision

Many high achieving people have reported that along the way of their lives, some person has seen potential in them even when it was not obvious to others. That is, a teacher or coach or mentor had a sense of their potential, even if that potential was not readily apparent.

For example, a young student from a poor background and education may be seen by a teacher to have a certain giftedness when others have written them off. Thus encouraged and supported, the student begins to excel. (The famous case of deaf and blind Helen Keller working with her teacher, Annie Sullivan, is such an example.)

Bi-focal vision is a term that denotes our ability to see both the actual behavior and a person's potential within. When we act toward persons as if they are more than they appear to be on the surface, the potential within tends to emerge.

Conversational behavior flows from our attitudes

The simplest way to bring out the best in people is to hold an attitude of positive expectations.

Instead of looking for what's missing, or what's wrong with a person, we can re-frame our expectations to look for what's positive. The management phrase, 'Catch employees doing something right' captures the sense of this attitude.

Try it out!

If you make a conscious choice to expect the best from others, you will tend to get it, from friends, family members, colleagues, and service people.

Your behavior toward them, genuinely expressed, will begin to create the self-fulfilling prophecy that people are often more than they seem.

Reprinted from Conversation Pieces (see below)
Loren Ekroth 2005.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact him at loren@conversation-matters.com. Check out a wealth of resources and archived articles at ConversationMatters.com, where you can also subscribe to Loren's e-zine, Conversation Pieces.

Some Related Articles:

Bored With Small Talk? Make It Bigger!
Making Conversation Safe for Others
Overcoming Conversational Power Plays
Four Secrets of Learning Masterful Conversation
Defensive vs. Supportive Conversation: The Critical Differences
Six Common Mistakes That Spoil Conversations
Top Five Conversation Stoppers
The Lies That Saved a Judge's Life
The Very Real Power of Empathy

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