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Do You Encourage Terrible Behaviour?

Terrible behaviour can be a real problem – do you know someone who continually behaves contrary to the way you think they should, and they do this time and time again?

In this article you will learn about…

  • How you might be contributing to someone else’s recurrent poor behaviour.
  • How you can change the way you respond to improve the way they behave and relieve your own frustration at the same time.

What is Poor Behaviour?

  • Behaviour that creates difficulty for the person
  • Behaviour that creates difficulty for other people

Poor behaviour can take many different forms, so there is no one way to describe all poor behaviour.  Perhaps the easiest way to think about poor behaviour is to consider its impact on the person and those around them.

Using this framework, poor behaviour can be considered anything that has a negative impact on the person exhibiting the behaviour, and/or those around them. 

The most obvious type might occur when someone becomes outwardly angry and mistreats people.  This type of behaviour is quickly spotted and has the effect of making others feel bad – it can be strongly harmful and toxic.  This can affect colleagues, friends, families, and close personal relationships.

The other, and often less obvious type, occurs when someone’s behaviour is predominantly self-harming.  This type of behaviour can be observed when someone responds to situations in a way that stops them coping as well as they need or prevents them from completing a task they are trying to achieve.

What Causes People to Behaviour Poorly?

  • Lack of intrapersonal skills
  • Lack of interpersonal skills
  • Low self-esteem and confidence

The first thing to consider is why anyone would WANT to behave, react, or cope poorly.  The answer is they don’t – almost no one would come across a situation and decide to respond poorly.  It happens in the moment, and is a reaction that uses the capabilities and resources they have at that particular time. 

People are complicated and of course everyone is different, but we can break the causes down to just a few broad difficulties.

Some people have difficulties with intrapersonal skills.  This refers to what goes on inside the person and includes things like their experience of stress, how they feel in difficult situations, and the way they think about things that happen.  If someone is prone to being easily stressed and hampered by a lot of negative self-talk, they will experience most situations as negative, challenging or toxic.

Some people have difficulty dealing with other people – their interpersonal skills are lacking.  There are all sorts of reasons for this though the main problems include problems with empathy, being too self-focused and and not having strong communication skills – especially listening.

Self-esteem and confidence play a huge role in our lives’ and if someone lacks self-esteem or self-confidence, it is more likely that they will be anxious in situations they find challenging, but may also become angry when they feel that their weakness has been exposed to someone else.

How Do Enabler’s Contribute?

  • Filling gaps and topping up
  • Too much support
  • Failure to set limits

No one ‘likes‘ having to deal with someone with bad behaviour so you might expect that we would all try to do things to reduce its impact.  However, some people exacerbate negative behaviour by making it more likely to happen again in the future.  Curiously, this usually happens when someone is trying to solve the immediate problem.  Let’s consider how this can happen.

Imagine that you are dealing with someone who is trying to do something but they are failing and as a result, they become distressed and start getting angry.  You are in their space and you find yourself dealing with someone who is both angry and upset at the same time – what might you do?  Well, with the best of intentions, a lot of people will try to solve the problem that the other person is working on.  In effect, you are saying, ‘don’t worry, I can do that for you, and it will all be ok‘.  As you would expect, the tension, anger, frustration and distress rapidly decline.  So it seems like the problem has been resolved.  However, this ‘solution’ can produce a series of unintended consequences. 

  • The person you helped didn’t learn how to solve the problem they were dealing with.
  • They also learnt that they probably can’t solve problems without help.
  • As a result, the next time they approach a challenging situation, they become more anxious and upset, give up on looking for their own solution, and look for someone else to solve it for them – very likely you.

This is enabling – you are effectively enabling someone to not cope and behave poorly as a result.  The rationale for your action is well intentioned, you are trying to resolve the immediate problem, but in the longer term, you encourage negative behaviour.

Are You an Enabler?

  • Try this quick quiz

Enabler’s are often well intentioned, they are trying to help another person feel better in the moment.  However, this can prevent the same person from experiencing growth and becoming more competent.  The following questions will help you think about whether you have a tendency to enable negative behaviour.

  • Do you feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is distressed or angry?
  • Do you respond to these feelings by trying to help the person solve their problem, or do it for them?
  • Do you find yourself diving into these situations more often than most people do?
  • Do you tend to accept other people’s negative behaviour and explain it, rather than set limits, or perhaps solve their problem expecting that this will lead to a quieter and easier existence?
  • Do you seem to know more people who get easily distressed and need more support than others?

How Can You Stop?

  • Observation and reflection
  • Planning
  • Balance support and limit-setting
  • Be patient and see things improve
  • Be willing to experience discomfort

So you think you might be an enabler, how can you change the pattern?  The first thing you need to do is to recognise it.  Recognising the behaviour is the first step in changing the pattern – if you don’t recognise it is happening you won’t be able to take any steps because you won’t even know you need to.  The key tool for recognition is self-reflection.  Taking the time to be reflective allows you to realise what is happening and that you are not helping the person by taking over from someone.

Having recognised the problem, you can begin to make some plans.  Once you have begun the reflection process, you should begin to notice problems that people present to you, problems that trigger you to get involved.  From your experience, you may be able to recognise a pattern to the things that trigger you.  Either way, analyse some of the events that you have become involved with and think about how you could deal with these situations differently.

Often, the real issue in these situations is that you will tend to offer overwhelming support.  It is welcomed and of course, support is not inappropriate so it seems completely reasonable.  However, if the support extends to taking over then it overwhelms the situation.  Instead, an approach that involves some support and understanding and focuses on encouragement, then the person will potentially be able to solve their own problem.

Sometimes the person’s behaviour is very negative, toxic or abusive and must be addressed directly.  This involves setting limits, which in most cases means declaring that the behaviour is unacceptable and must stop immediately.  Alternately, and with the declaration you will leave the situation.  On some occasions, society will impose limits , for example, through police intervention.  If this happens, may be better to let the society’s limits run their course rather than trying to get the person out of trouble.  e.g., if someone has been arrested for aggression, don’t deny it – otherwise the person will not face the consequences of their behaviour.

It is important to realise that even if you change your approach with someone, it is not likely that they will suddenly change the way they do things after a single interaction.  It will take time and repeated attempts to change their behaviour, but over time it will change.  So be patient and give them time to grow, they will surprise you and develop their own sense of confidence and purpose. 

Be mindful of yourself – you must be prepared to tolerate the discomfort that goes with dealing with someone who is upset or angry. Remember that the problem is not yours to deal with, it is theirs and you must be prepared to push it back to them to cope with instead of solving it for them.  This is your part of the equation and if you don’t get to a stage where you can tolerate this discomfort, you will be destined to be part of vicious cycle that harm you and prevent someone else from growing.

Example:  Molly Enables Her 8 Year Old Daughter, Emily

Molly’s daughter, Emily, is 8 years old and has developed some behavioural problems.  Emily has a habit of making demands and when her demands are not met, she becomes upset and before long has a tantrum.  Molly’s response was to appease Emily because it led to a rapid resolution of the situation.  However, Emily’s tantrums became more frequent and intense.

Molly was enabling Emily.  Emily’s behaviour arose as a result of not having demands met and her inability to tolerate disappointment.  At the same time, Molly felt distressed when her daughter was so upset and her main tool was to produce whatever it took to help her daughter calm down.

After discussing the situation with Molly and helping her see what was happening, she changed the way she managed Emily. She accepted that Emily would get upset and needed to set firm limits and not give in to unreasonable demands from her daughter.

It was not long before Molly noticed changes.  On the first few occasions, Emily’s tantrums were bigger and lasted longer, but Molly persisted.  Soon though, the tantrums became less intense and didn’t last as long.  After a while, the tantrums largely disappeared and when they did occur, they were half hearted and fizzled out quickly. While

Example:  Sam Enables His Employee, James

Sam was the owner of a small business with a dozen employees, one of which was James.  James was a young man in his early 20’s and he had a tendency to become anxious when he was asked to do something out of his comfort zone.  This anxiety increased to agitation and he was unable to do his work.  Sam responded by initially telling James he could do it, but after a while, he would find another way of getting the work done.  This relieved James of the need to take the task on, Sam got the work done, and the tension was resolved quickly.

Sam noticed that things were getting worse though, James was continually unable to perform tasks set for him, and it was getting to the point that Sam was considering having to find a way to terminate his employment.  Sam decided to become involved in our coaching program, ’12 Weeks to a Better You’ and we discussed his problem early in the process. Same realised that he was contributing to James’s problems and on that strength decided that it would be better to help James solve his bigger problem rather than terminate his employment.

Sam changed his approach to James.  The next time James experienced a problem, instead of taking the responsibility away from James, he encouraged him, provided some structure and direction so he could complete the task.  It wasn’t straight forward and Sam had to put in more effort than he wanted to, but James completed the task successfully.  James was pleased with himself and seemed more confident.

Over a number months, similar situations arose, but each time, James seemed more able to go further with the task himself and required less support from Sam – James was growing and becoming more confident while Sam had to put in less and less effort into propping him up.

Closing Remarks

People who enable others often do it with good intentions, they want to help someone who is distressed or perhaps to reduce the impact of the sense of distress that is occuring in the moment.

The concept can be applied to examples that have already been described, but it provides a way of understanding a wide range of problem behaviours including supporting substance abused, abusive behaviour, escalating anxiety and ‘acopia’ and so on.

Understanding enabling and how to change it involves self-reflection, self-confidence and self-esteem.  Developing psychological awareness of yourself and those around you provides enormous assistance to help anyone navigate the complexities of life and the people we interact with.

I recently published a book on Amazon, “Five Skills That Make Great (Leaders) People” – it will help open your mind to the value and power of psychological awareness in leadership and your personal life.

Click here to learn more.

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