To learn more about how we actually can change others around us, and expand happiness for ourselves and others, I caught up with the inspiring positive psychology expert Michelle Gielan. A national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, Michelle is the bestselling author of Broadcasting Happiness, and Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research. Executive Producer of “The Happiness Advantage” Special on PBS and a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness Course, Michelle is also partnered with Arianna Huffington to study how transformative stories fuel success.
Kathy Caprino: Michelle, we’re often told that we can’t change other people, but your research shows that thought is not true?
Michelle Gielan: We’ve collectively adopted this belief that we can’t change others, but my research shows this thought is not only disempowering, it is scientifically false. We are changing people all the time. Through the words we say and our body language, we shape how other people process the world in significant ways.
One of the clearest studies showing how quickly this can be done was conducted at the University of California Riverside where researchers had three strangers sit in a room together for just two minutes, without talking. Then they tested their emotions, and the results were incredible. The most expressive person in the room ended up influencing the other two people. If one person was frowning and crossing their arms, the other two felt less happy or more agitated. If the most expressive person was smiling or relaxed, it made the others feel more positive. All that in just two silent minutes! We’ve all felt this at the office with our negative colleague sighing at ideas during a meeting, but what is less obvious is that the positive influence can be as strong.
Caprino: Your study recently published in Harvard Business Review shows how quickly we can influence other people in significant ways. Tell us about your findings and the implications for leaders and parents alike.
Gielan: Positively influencing the performance of others starts by getting them to be solution-focused. Moving conversations at work or home from focusing on problems to discussing solutions changes how the brain operates. In a study I conducted with Shawn Achor and Arianna Huffington, we found that pairing problems with solutions increased research participants’ creative problem solving abilities on subsequent unrelated tasks by 20%, not to mention mood improved!
That means as a manager or parent, you can talk about the negative without leaving the other person feeling helpless to create positive change. The key is to get their brain to see that behavior matters in the face of a challenge by discussing solutions they could take to get there.
Caprino: In your work with individuals and business teams from Fortune 500 companies and other organizations, you’ve seen the effects that changing the way managers talk to employees has on performance and profitability. Can you share an example?
Gielan: Enlightened leaders recognize the power of using their platform to focus conversations on topics that breed empowerment, resilience and optimism.
A manager I wrote about in my book Broadcasting Happiness, who simply began getting his team to pay attention to all that they were doing right, increased the entire team’s productivity by 31% in just three weeks. His formula was simple: Praise one person new and different each day about one specific thing that they are doing well, ideally within earshot of colleagues. Reminding the brain how successful it already is can often fuel it to be more successful moving forward. I share more examples during a talk I gave at Google’s Re:Work conference.
Caprino: If the science and stories are so compelling, why have we bought into this idea that we are powerless to influence others?
Gielan: That is a great question. When I ask audiences, “Raise your hand if someone has ever said to you, you can’t change other people.” Literally, everyone’s hand is up. I believe the reason everyone has bought into this idea is that it is easier to assume that you can’t change others. We often believe what it is easiest for us, but not what is best or true. It seems to take the burden off of us, but it blinds us to the fact that we are not powerless.
Caprino: What is one way we can help someone we care about see his or her potential? For instance, if a child doesn’t believe they can do well in school or an employee does not seem confident when you know they can be successful.
Gielan: Too often we believe we need to focus on all that’s broken and fix it before we can thrive, but now we’re seeing that is not necessarily the strongest path. In our new special Inspire Happiness stations nationwide, my husband Shawn Achor and I share how to get someone else to see their potential by “spotlighting the right.”
Instead of helping them see all the things they need to work on to improve their situation or achieve their goals, just simply spend one week spotlighting all that they are already doing right. Look for the ways they are using their strengths such as compassion, kindness, grit, or zest to do well or have a meaningful effect on others. Call them out for the little things they’ve done great. You’re trying over the course of the week to create a drumbeat of success to rewire their self-image , so skip a “big discussion” about the C in math and focus for that week on how your son worked really hard on that history project and helped cleanup his room.
A friend of mine starting spotlighting the right with her husband who had not really been helping out around the house, and the results were incredible. She focused on skipping the nagging and instead calling him out for just a handful of helpful behaviors (ordering pizza on his own, putting two dishes in the dishwasher and not the sink, and playing with this kids so she could take a much needed shower,) and after just a few days, his behavior changed. On Thursday that week he fixed a hose that had been leaking for two months. And over the weekend he cleared the table, which she said she couldn’t remember him ever doing unless his mom was in town! Why? Because he was fulfilling his new self-image. He’d redefined himself as a helper, and helpers help.
Caprino: Michelle, in your former work as a journalist for CBS News, you saw that the news can be very negative, and you’re advocating for that to change. What is your hope as a researcher and a parent for the national conversation on TV and online?
Gielan: In a separate study I ran with Achor and Huffington shortly after leaving CBS, we found that exposing your brain to just three minutes of negative news in the morning can increase your chances of having a bad day by 27% —as reported 6-8 hours later. You carry around that negativity all day. But CBS News also showed me the power of talking about challenges in a different way.
My hope is that the national conversation changes to be activating, engaging and solution-focused. It would activate a belief that our behavior matters in the face of a challenges, engage the public through civil, respectful discussions and calls-to-action, and focus less on the problem and more about what can be done to solve it.
Some news organizations are already engaging in some of this kind of journalism, but for a great shift to occur, we’ll need to move away from sensational stories of one-off violence or things that were beyond our control to a deeper, more serious discussion of how we can be part of the solution.
In the meantime, to protect your brain, I always recommend getting news online, which allows us control over which stories we click on. Search out inspiring stories of individuals or organizations overcoming challenges or people doing incredible things to balance out the other news. And take part in solving at least one issue facing our world.As Bishop Desmond Tutu has been quoted as saying “The daily newspaper is God’s “to-do-list” delivered to our front door.” By remembering our power to positively influence others, our hope and optimism can fuel us as we create positive change in the world. And I am optimistic that one day the media will more fully tell that story.