Challenging disruptive behaviours – DESC

Challenging others’ behaviours is not easy. Not only have you got to offer feedback to someone who has just upset you in some way, you have to run the risk of them becoming upset themselves and risk the relationship spiraling in a negative direction.

Some might say you can avoid the need to confront others’ behaviours. They say you can choose how to react to any particular event and not have to suffer the negative emotions. They might even quote the old saying “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

In a similar vein, I advocate creating a gap between stimulus and response in my Mind The Gap post. However, not challenging behaviours is not what I am advocating in that post. It is extremely important, I believe, to challenge negative behaviour in others.

Mind The Gap is about choosing your initial response to events, not the initial emotion. It is extremely difficult (probably impossible) to choose the immediate emotional reaction to any event. What you can do is choose not to react impulsively to express that emotion.

The benefits of speaking to the other party, when you are ready to do so, can be three-fold. Firstly, you have processed the emotions and thoughts to create expression through language. Expressing our inner feelings and thoughts is a powerfully cathartic process. I have learned the hard way that buried feelings and unexpressed needs can have damaging consequences to one’s mental and physical wellbeing.

Secondly, the individual receiving the feedback may not realise they are causing such pain. If they do know their actions are causing upset, once challenged, they may choose to change their ways. Behaviours can quickly become conditioned habits if not challenged.

Thirdly, the relationship may be protected or even strengthened.

Of course, offering the feedback might only realise the first of these three potential benefits. That’s fine. It is the most important one for you after all.

So, we have composed ourselves, now we are ready to speak. How might we go about delivering our feedback in a controlled and effective way?

Sharon and Gordon Bower offer a great four-step process in their book Asserting Yourself: A Practical Guide to Positive Change. The acronym they use is D.E.S.C. which stands for Describe, Express, Specify and Consequences.

Describe the other person’s behaviour objectively, express your feelings (calmly), specify the behaviours you want to see stop and those you want to see instead and make the consequences of changing or of not changing known (p.100).

The book was first published in 1976 and I’ve seen this model altered over the years with different meanings and actions ascribed to some of the steps. However, I think the original process is the most useful.  The authors introduce the concept with the use of a cartoon showing a good and a bad way to challenge behaviour (p.91). I think it works quite well.

Another example they use is on page 163:

Describe: Essential jobs are not being done around the house.

Express: I feel resentful and I think we need to talk about the mess we’re in.

Specify: I would like to talk now about who should do what jobs.

Consequences: Positive: I’ll feel less pressured and uptight if we can agree to talk about our household jobs. Negative: If you don’t agree, I’ll just keep talking about the problem.

Here’s an example from yours truly:

Describe: You keep interrupting me before I can finish my sentences.

Express: This frustrates me and makes me angry. I feel like my opinion isn’t important.

Specify: I’d like you to let me finish my sentences and allow me to get my point across.

Consequences: I’m sure if you do that we will have much more in-depth conversations and increase our levels of understanding. If you don’t I’m going to become increasingly frustrated and will find ways to avoid contact with you.

Not all interactions are going to be straight forward. You have to expect the other party to respond to your feedback. The book describes how to handle the various ways in which the person being challenged might try to side-step the feedback. This is well worth a look if you are going to make this technique work well.

The book also covers areas such as developing self esteem, coping with stress and looking and feeling assertive. Some of the references and language seems dated now but the book is well worth a look. It is easy to read and packed with examples and exercises. I got my secondhand copy for less than £3.

So, next time someone does something that annoys you, first Mind The Gap, then try the D.E.S.C. four-step process to challenge their behaviour. It still won’t be easy, but at least you have a process to follow. Remember too, that practice makes perfect.

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