By Mark Ledden

January 26, 2022

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4 Steps for Changing Problematic Behavior

Kenning Associates Partner Mark Ledden has worked with many coaching clients on problematic behaviors. Speaking with Michael Merrill, he focuses specifically on behaviors where you know you have a problem, but cannot seem to fix it. You may even exhibit the “ideal” behavior in other–typically less pressured–situations.

Removing a domino from a line of dominoes
Mark provides 4 steps for remedying the problem behavior.  First, you need to identify the triggering cues:  where, when, and what sets you off. Secondly, you must notice your habitual response in the moment.  Thirdly, you devise a clearly articulated alternative ready when the behavior happens. Finally, you speed up the cycle of noticing the behavior and replacing it with the preferred alternative.

Mark explains how you can effect this change both on your own, but perhaps even more effectively with outside help, namely a coach.  Finally, Mark discusses the value of mindfulness practice and describes how he works to help people not only improve their professional outcomes, but also generally to reduce some of the stress, even fear in their lives.



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Mike Merrill:  Hi, I’m Mike Merrill. And I’m here with Kenning partner, Mark. Ledden. 

Mark Ledden: Mike. Good to talk to you today.

Mike: Today we’re talking about four steps for changing problematic behaviors. Do you want to describe what you mean by problematic behaviors? 

Mark:  Yeah, we’ve all got these, right. You can call it a habit. You could call it a reflexive tendency, but there are moments when we find ourselves acting in a way that we know rationally is not helpful to us. And probably people have told us that, you could be more effective or have more impact if this behavior was somewhat different. And yet it is very hard to break that habit. 

So, I’m going to call these persistent patterns. There’s lots of different ways that if you’re coaching, you’re going to try to help people break a persistent pattern. One of the particular things that we run into with some frequency is a person who acts in one way in a certain context, but acts differently in a different context. And they would actually be better off if they acted the way they do over here in this other place. But for some reason they just can’t. 

So it’s a funny situation because it’s not like you’re asking them to do something they don’t know how to do. They do it all the time! But they just cannot, for some reason, seem to act in that way, in this different spot where doing that thing they do elsewhere would really serve them. 

Mike: Do you have an example of this?

Mark: Sure. In fact, I want to talk a little more about a particular person I worked with. Let’s call them Ishan–who is very assertive, very clear about what he thinks. Very good leader with his teams, with his peers, and yet consistently receives feedback from a CIO that you need to be more assertive. “You’re disappearing in the steering committee meetings, and we need you to bring more of your insight and to be a little more provocative there.”

Now, this was consistent with feedback that he had heard in many, many cases that especially when he was in high-stakes situations or stakes where there was a lot of situational authority or hierarchy, he tended to be very reserved. So, you know, the question for Ishan is why can’t team-room Ishan be the person who shows up for these steering committees? And he rationally knew that’s what he was being asked to do. And yet over a number of years had really struggled to make that change.

Mike: And this sounds like a pretty common problem, right? I think I’ve seen this probably even in myself. I get into certain situations, especially when I’m speaking to higher level authorities in a group, and for some reason, some of my confidence subsides. 

Mark: Sure. It’s not unnatural, right. There are obvious reasons why you would feel more at risk and why you might show up differently. It can show up the other way as well. I think about another client who I’ve had, a very senior person in an organization who for some reason ended up totally chewing out a much more junior colleague who had screwed up a rental car arrangement. 

Now, ultimately that rental car arrangement did not matter much, but my guy who was actually a nice decent person. He found himself just wanting to destroy this junior colleague, even though he’s been told repeatedly that sometimes he is too harsh, that sometimes he seems to take things to a personal level. And yet in that moment, provoked by this rental car screw up for whatever reason, he just could not hold back from blasting this guy, even though he knew that was terrible leadership, that’s what he did. 

Mike: When you spoke with Ishan, I assume that your first question was asking him, why do you think you do this?

Mark: Of course. And he said, I don’t know. It feels risky, which is a really funny response, right? Because here’s somebody who’s being told the thing that is creating a ceiling for you is that you’re not showing up more assertively in these very important situations. So obviously that’s the risk, right? The risk is gonna top out his capability to rise by not acting the way he did in these other places, in these important meetings. And yet in his mind, there was something going on that made showing up larger in those steering committee meetings seem risky. What an interesting word:  “Seems risky”. 

Mike: So, what do we do next? How do we address this?

Mark: The first thing you have to do, I think, and this is where we get into our four steps. First thing I think you need to do is you need to identify the trigger and that means what’s the context in which things happen, also, what are the stories that make you feel the way that you feel in those moments? 

The second thing you got to do is start figuring out how to get good at noticing when it happens. A lot of times, if you’re the victim of a limbic hijacking, one of the characteristics of that is you don’t even know what’s going on until afterwards. So to have a chance to change your actions, you have to be able to know that it’s happening. 

The third thing is you’ve got to know what the alternative, the desired behavior, looks like. When you are in the moment, under stress,trying to do something new, it is very hard to just invent out of nothing what this new behavior is. So you need to have kind of something in your head that’s pre-rehearsed so that you’re not struggling to do it all on the fly. And then, and this is just a matter of mastery, you try to reduce the amount of time that passes between when you notice that you’re in the moment and when you can produce the alternative behavior. And of course, the way we are mostly at first, you recognize in hindsight, it’s going to be “the wisdom of the staircase,” That, oh yeah, that’s what happened. But over time, once you reduce that amount of time that passes so that in the moment you can do something different. 

Mike: So let’s start with that first one: Identifying triggers prospectively. 

Mark: There’s probably a couple of different pieces of this, one is the actual in the world context. When does this happen? Who you’re talking to? What’s going on? What are the stakes? All these things that are happening out there in the world that you can identify that say, these are the things that are around or are happening when I do this thing that I’m trying to break. 

The other thing is you want to start digging in on the mindsets because you need to change behavior, but if you don’t change the underlying mindsets, that change is not likely to stick. It’s not likely to be effective. It may seem phony or inauthentic. 

So you also want to say, what is the trigger in terms of the story in your head that makes you feel the way you feel when you are compelled to do something not helpful? Or you just seem to be unable to do this other thing that you know would be a good idea. So in this  case, what is the story in your head that makes you feel not taking the advice of your CIO is safer than actually doing it? Where does that idea of risk come from? Who’s in the room, what’s going on, external world behavior. Mindset. What are the stories? What are the assumptions? Let’s start to unpack those things so we can analyze or diagnose or recognize ahead of time. And that’s the key. How can we recognize prospectively the moments when you are likely to act one way when you want to act another?

Mike: Mark, could you provide a brief definition of how Kenning defines triggers? 

Mark: Well, it’s a little bit of a fraught term right now because it has some very specific political context and we’re not really wanting to make a judgment one way or another on that. But for us, it is an instigating stimulus. A lot of what we’re talking about is when a person receives a certain sort of stimulus, they lose the control to think intentionally about it and they act in a reflexive way. 

To create the possibility for choice we need to blow some air between stimulus and response. To do that you got to know what the stimulus is. When we say triggers that’s what we’re talking about. It is when someone more senior than me is in the room. It is when somebody has done something that feels to me, like it is a sign of lack of quality or incompetence that must be eradicated from myself in the world. What’s going on that gives you the feeling you have and the intensity of the feeling that you have. 

So those are going to be the triggers. And again, we’re really just looking for patterns so that you can say, I can anticipate that when I am in this moment or when this thing happens, I may feel compelled to act in that way that I persistently act, even though I don’t want to. So I can start preparing myself to say, okay, it’s going to go differently this time. 

Mike: So that’s identifying triggers, prospectively. I think the second step is noticing habitual behavior 

Mark: Noticing when you’re in the moment. So getting good at saying: when I am at risk, I know that my throat tightens. I know that my breath shortens. I know that I feel anxiety in my stomach. I know that my thoughts start to spin. I know that I am likely to have not said anything for the last five minutes. I know that I may get a direct question and I find myself hedging or softening the answer. I know that I have thoughts in my head about something important and for whatever reason, I am disinclined to share those. 

Okay. So all those things can be indicative of if you’re Ishan, what the pattern is. So how can you say in the moment, I’m disappearing? Or, how can you at least say retrospectively I’m now in that period of the week where I’ve committed to looking back and say, what were the moments when I disappeared? And this is really a mindfulness exercise, as much as anything else, you’re trying to get good at noticing in a way that allows you to be present and aware of what’s happening with your body and what’s happening in the circumstance. Again, so that you have the possibility of choice, the possibility of different action. 

Mike: I think it’s not just your mind, right? Your body actually can give you some signals. 

Mark: And in many cases, it’s going to be your body. That is your best friend in these things, because you can, in lots of ways, develop your body awareness. A lot of our clients are very, very smart intellectual people and they may not actually, many of them, be very in touch with their bodies. So it is a thing to say, don’t just feel uncomfortable saying my stomach is contracting in a certain way and I’m feeling acid. Well, why does that happen? Oh, that happens when I’m feeling like I’m under threat when I’m in danger. Oh, okay. Well, am I? But you have to get good at recognizing those things and figuring out what they mean. 

Mike: That’s noticing habitual behavior in the moment. And I think the next step is having a clearly articulated alternative in your mind. Is that right? 

Mark: Yeah, that’s right, because we’re asking you to, in those moments, when you were at your most vulnerable, your most reactive, do something else that you’ve known for years you should do, but you just haven’t been able to. It is really hard in that moment to say, I will just invent a new behavior. So these can be very, very specific things. 

So for instance, let’s say that we have someone, our friend Ishan, who’s has things going on in their head that might be valuable to the group, but they feel disinclined to say them. Ishan would say, I don’t want to look foolish. That was like a big thing for Ishan. Nobody had ever told him you really got to stop being so foolish, but that was a big thing for him. This big drop. 

So you could say, I think a mistakes about to be made, or there’s something going on here I don’t understand. If that’s what’s in his head, well then can we give him a prompt that says something like when that happens say something’s not adding up for me maybe you can help me figure it out. Just some words that help you move from the state of paralysis or being stuck into this new behavior, but you don’t have to invent it. So a lot of times it’s just initially stock phrases, transitions, just some things that you can use to prime the prompt and help somebody start that different action.

Mike: You also suggest an even further step which is almost like the way athletes imagine how they will get better at their own sports. 

Mark: Visualization exercises–that’s right. What does you being in that moment and choosing something else look like? And we’ll do that like an athlete does. Just like, you’d say, what is you getting over the high bar look like. Okay. What is you in a moment when you’re feeling stressed, close your eyes, what do you feel going on in your body? What’s going on in your head? What do you say? Hold on a minute, I think we’re running in circles. Who knows? It could be just something that’s offered as a specific behavior that you will trot  out in the hopes that it will actually get you into a different mindset and have you showing up in a different way. 

Now, having something to say, a catch phrase, a transition to something to help you move into the different place. This is not entirely different than other physical handholds that people who are working on neuroplasticity or neuro reprogramming will work on. So for instance, you might say when you’re feeling a certain way, take three minutes and snap your fingers. But a lot of times the guidance will be, do something physical with your body, do something out in the world. So we want to try to do pre-work mentally with the visioning, but we also want to give you something specific and out in the world, an action, a behavior, that can help to trigger the new thinking and the new behaviors.

Mike: This seems to be the step that may be sometimes we forget. Right? I think a lot of us are taught in mindfulness practice to recognize when we’re in the grip. But a lot of times we’re not taught to think about how to anticipate what we could do to get out of it. 

So let me give you a more personal example. With my kids I’ve learned to catch myself. Right? I catch myself getting in the grip of like, I’m about ready to get angry. And I’m like, oh, I don’t want to do that.This isn’t necessary, but I don’t have an alternative ready. And so I leave the room. 

Mark: Absolutely. You know, and as you’re talking about that, cause that’s such a real thing that all of us deal with. I’m thinking about a guy who’s kind of a mentor of mine, Barry Jentz, who’s done a lot of work on this and he tells a story about his own life and he was in his forties. His career was going great. He had a nice family, a wife that he loved, but when he come home from the road, he called it the threshold moment. When he would enter the house and he would experience his wife talking as like a wall of complaint that he could not deal with. And he said, I was so ashamed to recognize, that given the work that I do, my only response was I want to lash out or go to a bar. That’s all I had and I was so deeply ashamed that’s all I had. 

So I had to say, this is not who I want to be. I don’t want to be stuck here. So I had to prepare and steel myself to say, when I hit that threshold, tell me what’s been going on around here. And that was the thing that was the pre-rehearsed thing that he would say to get himself out of the I’m tired and I don’t think I can hear this and into the, okay, I’m actually gonna try to be the spouse that I want to be in this moment, even though I’m tired and be, attentive as opposed to fleeing the situation. But he had to have those words. Tell me what’s been going on around here.

Mike: It sounds like this is a pretty good little loop. We identify our triggers. We notice the habitual behavior. We’ve got an alternative ready at hand that we can deploy. Are we done? 

Mark: Well, you got to try to reduce the time because almost always, originally you say, oh, yesterday I did this thing again. Oh, two hours ago, I did the thing again. Oh. And that meeting five minutes ago, I did the thing again. So it’s useful to have a practice: Some sort of thing that you do to try to reduce that time. This is a very behavioristic; again, the first steps are kind of, you know, “mindsety”. This is very, behavioristic, what gets measured moves. 

And in Ishan’s case, for instance, we said, well for like four weeks, what I want you to do is at four thirty every day, you can take 15 minutes and go through and say in the last 24 hours, how many times do I feel myself inclined to hold back but I didn’t? This is the number of times I felt inclined to hold back. And this is the number of times I didn’t. And I want you to keep those two numbers over a series of weeks because it forces reflection, and it also gives you a sense of excitement and momentum, and you can see progress. 

You know, this is one of those “change things”. You don’t want to measure success by how close you are to the finish line. You want to measure success from how far away you are from the starting line. So to get somebody so they don’t feel dispirited and just throw in the towel. It’s nice to be able to say, let’s focus on the times when you did something different this week than you would have six months ago. And let’s call that a victory and let’s put some sort of metric or some sort of practice of attending to this. So you can see how many steps you’ve taken.

Mike: And Mark you are sort of suggesting, I think even that you put aside a half hour a week, maybe on a Friday afternoon when your other work is done to do this kind of retrospective analysis of how you behave during the week. Is that right? 

Mark: Yeah. Some sort of time for reflection and it’s probably useful if you don’t just say, I’ll think about it when I have a moment, you’ve decided there’s a time, there’s a place, there’s a circumstance in which you were going to do this. Because again, intention matters, right? You’re trying to do this thing that is hard. If you just do it a couple of times and forget about it, you’re likely to fall back into old patterns.

Mike: These four steps are something we could do on our own, but also it probably helps to have a coach or even another person that you can check in with for some social validation.

Mark: I think that’s right. Certainly, a person could do these things on their own and it’s useful to have some, I dunno, pro tips, go ahead and get a metric, do something that you’re measuring that’s useful. And it’s nice to have a coach who can help you figure those things out. 

The way that you may need a coach the most, other than just having one of these external commitments, like, oh, I have to tell my coach that I did something which is in itself useful, is in trying to figure out why don’t I do this thing? Cause that’s a loop that a person has been in for some time. 

So having somebody ask questions or explore the why’s with you may help to unlock some doors or help you see things that you’re blind to in the moment that help explain why you feel at risk. But where did you learn that? Where did that come from? So it’s nice to have someone to talk through those stories or hidden assumptions, which are by their nature hidden to you. 

Mike: It seems to me that, some of the terms that we’re describing, and some of the process we’re describing seem very attuned to mindfulness practice. Is that something you would recommend in addition to these particular four steps? 

Mark: Yes. I think that everybody can benefit from mindfulness practices, you know, being more present. And I also, in ways that seemed bizarre to me because it’s certainly not my faith tradition, I ended up talking about my very limited knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita with a lot of clients, just because my very simplistic understanding is that, okay, you got this guy, Arjun, he’s a prince. He’s got the God Krishna as his chariot driver. Great, good for you. He’s going into Babel and it’s like, this sucks. I don’t want to do this. This is my friends, my family’s over there. This is a stupid war. All kinds of people are going to die. This is awful. I want no part of it. 

And Krishna’s like, what makes you think that, you know, you have the power to save all these people. All these people are already dead. All right. You know, from my perspective, your job is just to do the right thing. Stop having the arrogance to assume that your impact is as big as it is. 

So it’s a really challenging such a back in your chair moment, but the notion is, I think, what are we gaining for ourselves when we feel so attached to outcomes? Mostly it’s fears and liabilities and baggage that we don’t necessarily need to carry. 

So there’s something that I think is closely related to mindfulness, which is being able to say, I’m going to act because it seems to me that in this moment, this is what “right action” looks like. And I’m balanced. I’m going to hope that more good things happen to me than bad, but I’m not going to try to say, I can predict that action a will lead to effect b. And if it doesn’t, I’m going to be disappointed or mad. I’m just going to say, and if you want to talk about developmental psychology, I think this is kind of a self-authoring move. I’m not going to be at the mercy of, I’m only happy if a certain thing happened after I acted, I’m going to say, this is what I want to act. This is the thing I think is appropriate for me. So I’m going to do it. So a lot of times what we’re trying to do is help liberate people a little bit from the tyranny of outcomes. 

Mike: Speaking of the tyranny of outcomes, what if I find myself regressing? I find myself returning to these kinds of reflexive behaviors.

Mark: First, have compassion. I don’t know how many people I talk to that are bad at compassion for themselves, and then often bad at compassion for others, because it’s the same skill, right? Lead with compassion. Don’t be disappointed at yourself. Don’t be angry. You don’t beat yourself up. You say, you know what? We’re all kind of messed up people and messed up world doing the best that we can. 

Okay. Now you are aware that there’s the thing you’d like to do you’re not doing as much. Start some practices, try to figure out, can you think, just go run the system again, try to think. Okay. What are the circumstances exactly when I’m acting in a way that I don’t want to. What’s going on? What are the patterns? Try to figure out how can I start paying more attention to those in the moment? How can I try to anticipate them? How can I reflect upon them? What can I measure to try to give me practice? To try to start getting better at recognizing those things in a timeframe that allows me to change my actions. And then, you’re just back on the path and try to help yourself figure out how to keep moving forward. 

Mike: Mark, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mark: I guess this has to do with almost anything that we’re coaching on. The typical question that I think a lot of me and my accounting partner start with is: What would have to change for you to be a little bit more successful and a little bit happier? 10% on either of those is just as important. So we definitely want people–we want to help them succeed professionally. That matters a lot. 

I want my Ishan to be able to be the high impact enterprise level leader, that he has the ability to be, and he’s doing it, he’s doing it, which is great to see. But I also want him to have a little less fear in his life. And he also has that. in my mind, that’s just as important and that’s one of the reasons that you do this work, right? Because being a little more successful and especially being a little happier is worth committing for at least a time to try to do something that initially is hard and probably feels difficult and may actually force you to stop doing some things that you’ve relied on for a long time.

Mike: Thank you for your time today, Mark. I think this was very helpful. I think a lot of us will take away these four steps and try them out.

Mark: My pleasure, Mike.