The Missy Method for Reinforcing Good Conflict Behavior

From the Conflict Zen blog of Tammy Lenski.

When we adopted our rescue mutt Missy 18 months ago, there was really just one thing she did well: Bark. She had two speeds: Barking and sleeping. It was easy to understand why we’re her fifth home, harder to figure out how we’d become her last home. All that barking made it hard to think at all.

What we finally figured out is the Missy Method. And it applies to conflict behavior in humans, too.

While working with a group of bank executives and managers a few weeks ago I shared the Missy Method for supporting and encouraging more effective conflict and customer service behavior in their teams. This is what I told them:

When there’s a behavior change we’d like to see – whether our own or someone else’s – we tend to focus our attention primarily on that problem behavior. We put our energy there.

With Missy, trying to get her to stop barking consisted of actions like: Loudly calling out Quiet!. Getting up and moving quickly from the room, so she’d follow us out of curiosity and stop barking in the process. Distracting with toys. Working hard to get her attention at all. Instantly starting to play with our other dog, hoping she’d join in. Each of these actions had a bit of success, but we knew we’d lose our sanity long before she gave up barking incessantly.

What did it take? One clicker and the space between barks.
We had to learn to click the minute she paused her barking, to reinforce the behavior we did want. Bark, bark bark, pause — instant click of the clicker and a piece of kibble to reward. It was astounding how quickly she understood and how wide the gap between barks became as we upped the ante — longer pauses before she’d hear the click and get the magic treat.

Today, Missy barks only occasionally, does it for the right reasons (someone is coming to the door, for instance), and stops when we ask her to. And boy does she wag a lot now, too.

It’s not enough to teach staff better conflict resolution skills and repeatedly correct the misses. You’ve got to reinforce the hits, too. You’ve got to click between the barks.

                        author

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at https://tammylenski.com/archives/… MORE >

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