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So here's the ChangingMinds Blog, from site author, David Straker. This is my more personal ramblings, though mostly about changing minds in some shape or form. Please do add your comments via the archive or the right-hand column below.  -- Dave

 


Sunday 26-February-17

Do, Lead, Help, Nudge or Watch

In your life, whether it is at work, in volunteering or wherever, you can often see a whole set of activities going on or where some action are needed. A way to look at these are as 'projects', where there is an intended outcome following a certain amount of work. These 'projects' can be of any size, from a few minutes to several years. A critical question for you (or a group you are in) is 'What should I/we do about it?' Here are five options.

Do

Sometimes all you need is to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. When something clearly needs doing the best approach is to do it rather than talk about it.

When you are going to do something, either taking the lead or doing it all yourself, there are three questions to ask:
1. Do I have the energy for this? (Or might I give up?)
2. Do I have the resources I will need? (From money to wheelbarrows)
3. Do I have the support I will need? (Including practical help and formal authority)

Particularly when we fear failure or criticism, we can get lost in the safety of meeting, talking and planning. While it is usually good to communicate, sometimes all you need to do is say 'I'm doing X. Did anyone want to join me'. Then just get on with it.

Lead

Some jobs you can do yourself. Other work is just too much for one or needs the expertise, resources or influence of other people. In voluntary contexts and where you do not have direct authority, this means you will need to influence others, motivating them to join your cause.

Leadership is a highly skilled activity, but if you are good at it you can get a lot done. It means being able to see both the big picture and how all the parts work together. It also means building such good relationships with the people involved that they want to help you and one another succeed.

Help

At other times the project may not be yours to do. Perhaps you lack the energy to lead it or someone else already has the bit between their teeth. Perhaps you as, have been asked to help using our expertize, or maybe they want a bit of extra grunt work during a critical period.

Whatever the reason, on these types of projects you are a helper, not a leader. This makes life a bit easier as you do not have to chase people and be at every meeting. You can hence just do your bit and leave the worrying to other people.

Nudge

In some projects you may have no active role, yet still have a concern for the outcomes of the work. This can be frustrating, as you want to steer the ship yet are neither the captain not the crew.

This is the position of the activist. Typically with concerns for social issues, they agitate, irritate and work to influence the decisions of those in power. Lobbyists, too, seek to nudge, cajole or otherwise influence the powerful.

Watch

Sometimes you have little influence, but are still interested in what is going on, for example so you can prepare for the outcome or discuss it with others. In such projects, you should just sustain a watching brief. Get hooked into information streams as you can, such as email distribution lists, notice boards, etc. and then just keep an eye on things.

If necessary, you can change your status on a 'Watch' project, for example if you become concerned that things are being done wrong or that your interests are not being examined,

 


Sunday 19-February-17

Organizing for local support and action

I work with a local 'town team' organization, whose goal is to help the local community improve. Our strapline is 'better together' and we want to make the town and area 'a great place to live, work and visit'.

Our challenge is that other local groups are rather inward-looking, concerned about their own affairs and unwilling to take the larger picture or look out into the future. Changing minds happens at every meeting and we need to be careful to keep our stakeholders happy. When you live in a small town, you can easily alienate many people with one bit of carelessness.

We were having the classic 'who are we' discussion the other day and I summarized the possible organizational role into an increasing level of complexity.

1a. Facilitating conversations. We did this in bringing together various groups from the county council to disability and cycling people to discuss a project to repave the high street. To be successful, this requires that we achieved a position of trust, sitting between all parties, which means not giving preference to any one, of helping everyone to be heard and holding back those who want to dominate. Facilitation in general means holding lots of conversations, helping people speak and listen to others. It means holding back your own

1b. Local activism. In some work we have taken the position of experts and cheerleaders. For example in the high street project, some of our members pushed for particular solutions. Contrary to the facilitation role, this may mean being partisan. It may lead some people we work with to not want future involvement with us. It may mean other groups feel we are treading on their turf. This oppositional dynamic means activism requires lots of energy to push through resistance, wear down the opposition and enthuse others to join in. There also seems a choice between this and facilitation. While we could do both, the dynamics of trust would make this difficult.

2. Volunteer projects. The easy way to get things done is to do them yourself. A simple example was when we got together to clean up a rather tatty car park. This role needs far less interaction with others, other than to find people to help and ensuring any opposition is minimized. It is a good way to get successes under the belt and evidence that we are a force for good. People like to associate with success, making this approach a good way to attract other volunteers.

3. Funded projects. In making improvements around the town, some things will need money, for anything from a bit of cement to paying for contractors to do major work. We did a presentation day for the town that needed money to hire the hall, print literature and so on. We would also like to do bigger things, from improving sports facilities to setting up a catering college. To do this means finding and managing money. It means understanding grant systems, how to apply for funds and keeping the funders happy as you use their money. This needs a prudent organization with the systems and expertize to attract and handle funds.

4. Managed projects. A step beyond getting funding which typically goes straight to a supplier, is to become more involved in the project, actively managing what is going on. We have not got to this as yet, but other town teams are doing such activities and it becomes necessary when funded projects require more active involvement. When you are a volunteer, becoming a manager can increase significantly the time you need to spend on the project, especially if you are managing the activities of other people. It turns helping when you can to working as you must. Even if you employ a professional project manager, you still need to manage the work of this person. It typically will require more formal project meetings, risk management, reporting and all the other aspects of managing projects.

5. Managed services. The highest level of activity that we have considered is in musing about the future, for example where local councils are seeking to divest responsibility for local assets such as parks and town buildings. In such cases the assets would be given to local trusts who would then become responsible for their upkeep. Managing projects is a short-term activity with a clear end goal. Managing services is ongoing work, quite possibly with permanent employees and contractors, and requires a long-term commitment.

Which path we take, whether to stay at the lower levels or reach into more active roles, will depend first on the energy and consequent commitment we can find.

 


Sunday 12-February-17

The polarisation of society and a way back to moderation

Have you noticed that politics has got rather fractious of late? Politicians are taking extreme views and refusing to work with one another. Little real work gets done amid the fruitless cat fight, which contributes further to electorate contempt. And not content with that, in-party schisms are commonplace, often as ever-more radical wings rip away at the traditional body as toleration gives way to right or left wing ideals. The electorate, too, split and raucous, see opposition politicians and their supporters as bad and even evil, rather than wrong and misguided.

This intolerance is also seen in society and religion and may even be seen in terrorism and consequent reactions. The internet, too, is bound up in this malaise. Anonymity and remoteness enabled extreme views to be expressed without fear of recrimination. Indeed, the simple buzz of power that trolls get from being nasty reflects our basest nature. Social media has also encouraged more extreme views in the shock-horror of gossip. In the search for affirmation, we band together into online tribes where we stroke one another's egos and attack out-group others lest we, too, are castigated for not being true enough to friends and tribal values.

Polarization is a classic us-vs-them tactic, where taking an extreme position casts those who are not like us at the other extreme, making them clearly 'not us'. This extreme psychological distance enables us demonize and dehumanize them, reducing them to faceless 'things', such that we can harshly criticize them, unfettered by common decency and social values that constrain our interaction with humans.

In other words, polarization is an easy short cut for the lazy and thoughtless who need approval more than reason. It is also the refuge of the insecure, who find the complexity of the real world too much to handle.

Polarization can also be seen in the distribution of wealth, at least in the 'western world', where there has been a gradual return to elitism with the '1%' super-rich, more people struggling to get by, and a general collapse of the middle classes. Where once a booming middle class with enough wealth for some luxuries was an aspirational possibility for many, now it has been eroded to the point where markers of affluence, for example home ownership, are becoming more and more of a distant possibility.

When you take away hope, you get hopelessness, and while some resign themselves to this fate, enough others are rebelling and may yet become a powerful political force, where the have-nots face off against the minority haves. For a long time the political right have fooled many with emotional appeals and empty promises that play to their fears, yet there also is a rising anger that is finding a voice of its own.

Moderation comes from appreciating and accepting others, but it also draws criticism from the righteous extremists. To be moderate means you cannot be mild. Handling complexity and intolerance takes fortitude of spirit. In the middle ground you cannot dehumanize as you seek true understanding. It means negotiating, giving and taking, and sometimes accepting situations that seem a bit unfair.

The pressures of an ever-faster life leads steadily from moderation to the easier extremes where we only have to look in one direction. Yet that polarized position brings new dangers. In a moderate society you can trust most people, even those who are not like you, to be civil and kind. But when things polarize, you see enemies at the gate and even inside the citadel. Where the defining emotion of moderation is love, fear rules the polarized.

So how do we get back? How do we create a kinder, more considerate society. The hardest first step is to stop fearing others, which leads to hating less. Yes, when you extend your hand to those who you have reviled, they may well try to bite it. But then moderation is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage and conviction to face critics from all quarters without slipping back into more extreme places.

And yet. Many of us know and prefer moderation. We consider kindness and civil society a great thing. Yet our fears hold us back. The good news is that society is more of a pendulum than a weight that drags us inevitably down. Moderate leaders will emerge and the silent majority will gratefully swing behind them.

The only question is where you will be in this movement.


Sunday 05-February-17

Understanding American Politics: It's Self vs Social, not Haves vs Have nots

A classic understanding of the political system in America (and generally in Western, democratic countries) is of the Haves vs the Have-nots. But this is not accurate, even as a simple model.

Classically, the Haves sit on the political right. In America they are called Republicans. Elsewhere they are called Conservatives. They have most of the money, and are focused on keeping it and getting more. In life, they are the senior managers and business owners (or perhaps their families). They like power but not taxes. They live expensively and away from the common people.

In opposition, the classic Have-nots are on the political left. In America they vote Democrat. Elsewhere they may be called Labour. They have relatively little money and are focused on survival. They live close to one another in small houses. They gain power through banding together in large numbers. When in power, they seek to protect jobs and increase welfare.

Yet if this was the simple truth, a democracy would always be run by Democrats. By definition, there are many more Have-nots than Haves. So what's up?

A key factor is that there are third and fourth groups.

The Haves can be broken into two groups. The Have-lots are the 1% elites who are wealthy enough to buy much of what they want without worrying about cost. They may have inherited wealth, been successful in business or been in a high-paying job for many years. In politics, they are likely to be Republican, where they seek low taxes and limited regulation. Their concern for others is seen in their foundations and charity balls. Tax-deductible, of course.

The Have-enoughs are the classic middle classes who have achieved the aspirational independence, picket-fenced home and all. They work hard in professional jobs or as reasonably successful business owners. They live comfortably but are still prudent. Politically, they may well be Democrats, with liberal views around preserving the environment and helping those less fortunate than themselves. They may also be aspirational to become a Have-lots (or fear becoming. Have-little) and so adopt a Republican position.

The Have-nots can also be divided into two. The real Have-nots are actually Have-nothings as and include vagrants, those on welfare and those who depends on charity. The may fall into this category for various reasons, including being runaways, having disabilities, and having fallen on hard times despite doing their best to support themselves (and possibly dependents too). While not a small group, they are not huge either and often lack direct political power. Their cause is often championed by those in higher groups, most typically Democrats. The Have-nots are unlikely to be politically active and may not even have voting rights (which means they are not attractive to political parties).

A large group who are often called Have-nots are more accurately Have-littles. These are the mass who work in low-paid jobs and for who life is a touch-and-go struggle as they try to avoid becoming a Have-not. They include people who have worked hard for many years and who are tired and disillusioned. In political communications they get patronising labels, such as 'hard working families' which tacitly recognizes the survival trap that keeps them near the bottom of the pile.

A further group that spans several levels are the 'Vulnerables' and include all groups containing people who can be the recipient of bias and unfair treatment. These include migrants, ethnic and religious groups, those with different sexual preferences, people with disabilities, women, older people and so on. Their disadvantages can be a spur to action when they define their lives through fighting through adversity. In this way they can become Have-enoughs and, occasionally, Have-lots. Overall, though, they are largely spread through the Have-littles and into the Have-nothings.

While opportunity still exists, it's not what it was. A common experience is of hard-working Have-littles losing their jobs as globalization led to cheap imports and industrial wastelands. Where they can, many have clung on in lower-paid and insecure jobs, as zero-hours contracts and the 'gig economy offer them scant lifelines. And, to add insult to injury, they see Vulnerables getting preferential treatment as liberal-minded Have-enoughs implement 'fair' policies that erode what little advantage they had. Vulnerables get welfare as the Have-littles struggle to make ends meet and, paradoxically, seethe at the unfairness of it all. Women and people of ethnic and diverse groups get promoted as positive action policies rebalance management ranks. To add insult to injury, Have-littles may see Environmental, health and safety laws as laudable but dangerous as they destroy jobs and are yet another thing that gets treated as more important than the ignored Have-littles.

A paradox of the Have-littles is that while they might be expected to vote Democrat, many vote Republican. This is the Republicans' secret sauce. By selling an anti-liberal message, promising greater security, and crafting evocative emotional appeals, including against welfare and environmentalism, they acquire a rich harvest of votes. While this may not be popular with Vulnerables, it gives voice to the fears of the many non-vulnerable Have-littles, in particular communities which are dominated by non-vulnerable men whose authority is accepted by others around them.

This creates an interesting skipping pattern, where Republicans skip liberal Have-enoughs in pursuit of the Have-little majority, while the Have-enough Democrats skip many of the Have-littles to try and help the more deserving Vulnerables and Have-nothings. A reverse effect happens too, as the Have-littles envy and rail against Have-enoughs who are their immediate seniors or an annoyingly well-paid professional, from dentists to consulting engineers. Out-of-reach Have-lots, however, are idealized and idolized as celebrities and potential champions who will save the Have-littles, just as the Have-enoughs seek to save others.

The perception of fairness has a particularly polarizing result as different groups believe themselves entirely right in wanting what they think is fair. Have-lots think it fair that they keep their high but hard-won incomes and to run their businesses as they think fit. Democrats seek a balanced fairness, where Vulnerables get special treatment to compensate for the bias they receive (Vulnerables of course agree with this). Have-littles want jobs and to not be the victim of Democratic bias that gives Vulnerables unfair advantage.

An electoral dilemma with Have-littles and Vulnerables is that their disillusionment with politicians and the state means that many do not vote. This can harm political parties, particularly when a significant community leans towards one or another party. Ethnic groups, for example, are far more likely to vote Democrat. If such groups can be energized, for example as done differently by Barack Obama and Donald Trump, they can have a huge electoral impact.

Taking this slightly larger segmentation, we can question again the rationale for voting Democrat or Republican. Have-lots Republicans want to keep their millions so want low tax. They also like few regulations that constrain their businesses. Have-lots and Have-enough Republicans fear losing their lifestyle and the crime that threatens this. Have-little Republicans just want more security, which translates first into decent jobs. They often live in tough areas and so also fear crime.

Have-some Democrats take a wider, more social view. Have-little Democrats feel their plight more as a community, for example being oppressed because of the shade of their skin. Their concern extends further than the self and more into social concerns.

A simple conclusion is that the Republicans appeal to the basic human drivers of fear (Have-littles) and greed (Have-lots) while Democrats have the more difficult task of appealing to compassion (Have-enoughs) and community (Have-nothings). Why? Because fear and greed have a self- or family-focus, while compassion and community appeal to those who are other-focused or we-focused.

Yes, it is a simplification. There are socially-minded Republicans and selfish Democrats. Yet Self vs Social makes more sense as a characterizing model than Haves vs Have-nots, as discussed above.

A further way of understanding this is in the collision between capitalism and democracy. Capitalism encourages wealth and the self-based view. It rewards individual success and assumes social concern will naturally arise from this. Democracy is the check on capitalist selfishness. While people may still be selfish, the public nature of democracy encourages a strong social concern.

What does this mean for politicians? For Democrats who seek to address natural Democrats, they should appeal to social values and ethics. To appeal to those with Republican leanings, they should make financial and security appeals. Meanwhile Republicans might woo Democrats by emphasizing community and the environment.


Sunday 29-January-17

Self, short-term and stupidity: the unholy persuasive trinity

We live in strange times where these three factors seem to be in the ascendant. They also make for dangerous times as many in power seem hell-bent on narrow, self-serving actions that take little account of the wider impact.

Self

A basic dimension of personality is the extent to which people focus on their own needs as opposed to those of other people. In practice, many of us swing along this scale, sometimes being generous and sometimes selfish. This pendulum is affected by how comfortable we are. When we feel the tension of fear or greed, we swing towards ourselves. When we feel safe and comfortable, we are more likely to be kinder, though the anchor of self can hinder even this.

As such, the 'self' may extend to family, close friends and ideals that support and legitimize unkind actions. For example a nationalist, patriotic position can be used to justify racist and xenophobic actions.

Selfishness becomes particularly dangerous when those in power are driven more by their own ends than social concerns. When they don't care who they trample on, when they consider deceit a useful tool, and when they bludgeon rather than finesse, then everyone else suffers.

Short-term

When thinking about the future we easily discount the likely effect of our actions, assuming risks will not happen and trivializing arguments that do not support us. Thinking about the wider impact of our actions can also be something of an inconvenience when this highlights how our ideas are flawed, damaging or just plain wrong.

Being in power can make a person reactive as they grab at every opportunity without concern for the future. With power aplenty, it is easy to feel they can handle problems that may arise from their actions, for example by blaming others or ignoring complaints. Where the thought of social disapproval keeps many of us on the straight and narrow, the powerful treat others with disdain.

Stupidity

Education is not the best predictor of success, particularly not wealth and influence. Determination and a willingness to bend the rules are how many get there. Also, if you try to be too perfect, too kind or are too concerned about the approval of others, your career ceiling is likely to be limited.

While 'stupidity' may be an emotionally charged word, it can describe well the decisions and actions of the powerful. When they equate success with their own 'genius', when they punish disagreement, or when they are selfish and think short-term, then their decisions may seem wise at first yet turn out to be very foolish.


Sunday 15-January-17

Outputs, Outcomes and Success in Work and Life

A common concern in businesses is to be efficient, doing only things that add value. This leads to a concern for process, where every step is explicitly defined and then refined in order to create the perfect output, every time. Specifications for deliverables are drawn up and quality assessed as 'conformance to specification', with precise test metrics as proof.

While this is perfect for some processes, many activities do not easily succumb to analysis. Yet the allure of easy perfection and lower costs has led to such methods being used in inappropriate places and ways. Anything to do with changing minds is a classic example and perhaps none more so than in teaching. In the past 20 years, schools have taken to business methods as a way to get better and consistent results, yet 'teaching to the test' is a long way from real education.

Rather than look at short-term outputs, a better consideration of real success is to consider longer-term outcomes. For businesses, this includes measures such as customer loyalty, where customers keep coming back for more and recommend you to their friends. In high school teaching a useful outcome measure might be success at university or even happiness in later life.

To work at the outcome level, rather than think 'does the product conform to specifications', look further down the line and ask questions such as 'How will they use what we delivered?' and 'What is the total value over time'. Of course customers will be happy when you deliver the goods, but their initial happiness has more to do with novelty and gratitude than an appreciation of lifetime benefits.


Sunday 15-January-17

Emotional mugging and exchange moaning

Do you like to have a good moan, perhaps complaining about how tough your life is or about the idiots who are somehow in charge. I do too, though I know it comes at a cost and, like most of us, I try not to be too negative, too much.

But not everyone is like this.

I heard a chap on a bus recently telling the person next to him that his wife had died. Having gained a sympathetic comment, he then launched into a long and gory description, not noticing his sympathizer squirming in discomfort. I felt sorry for both of them. Later, as I paused by his seat, he told me he had shingles. Again, the sympathy and inappropriate detail scenario played out. I felt trapped, but at least could retreat internally into a calmer analysis mode. I still felt sorry for him, but not as much and in a different way.

Why? Why do people do this, projecting their discomfort and dislike onto and willing (or unwilling) listeners.

A core social value is that we must be kind to vulnerable people and those less fortunate than ourselves. In fact in the rules of give and take, these victims of life have a pass that allows them to take more than they give. It is all about total fairness. If life has dealt you a poor deal on one hand, we agree it is only fair you get other things to improve the balance.

The problem comes when people play on this social rule, using a personal problem or distress as a bargaining chip to demand more than their fair share. In a social sense, this can be viewed as a criminal act, a 'smash-and-grab' emotional mugging that demands all without consideration of what the other person is able to give or how bad they will subsequently feel.

Relationships, once established, change slowly. This includes the balance of give and get. This is one reason why chronic moaners often lead with a complaint. Beyond filtering out those unwilling to give, it sets the precedent of 'I moan, you sympathize'. Any attempt by the listener to claim their turn at moaning is repelled with little sympathy, interruption, and a competitive 'my life is worse than your life' escalation into even more terrible woes.

But not all moaning is like this. A more common and acceptable approach is 'give to get', where you first gain social capital by being kind and listening to the moans of others before unloading your own woes. Much conversation is like this, where we take turns to complain about everything from the weather to our children.

There is an effective points system in moaning, based on the emotional toll on recipients. Major distress is high value, while minor grumbles spend very little. There may also be further rules about what you can reveal, for example not talking about major distress in casual settings, or complaining to the emotionally fragile. It is these additional rules that the criminal moaners ignore as they call loudly on the basic obligation to help those in need.

Moaning, done well, can be good for a relationship. Sometimes we moan in sympathy, effectively saying 'Like you, I have similar pains. This brings us closer together and increases trust, so you can feel good around me.' In such ways, moaning can build friendship as we share vulnerabilities, common distress and build trust. We can even kick off the moaning, but then stopping to let the other person have their turn. Even if they do not return the moan, they may feel good to be trusted enough to be treated as a confidante.

So moan away, but do so with care. Beware of losing yourself in your moan. Beware also of vampire moaners who would suck the will to live from you. Find a balance that works and indulge in a bit of friendly exchange moaning.

 


Sunday 08-January-17

Bringing up your children - a few things I've learned (sometimes the hard way)

I had a conversation recently about bringing up children. It's a remarkably difficult thing. I've got two kids and wish I could have my time again. Here’s some of the things I learned:

  • Teach them values when they are young and, even if they go off the rails, they will return to these.
  • Look for the ‘teachable moments’ when they are ready to listen and learn. If they’re not ready, you’ll only be banging your head against a brick wall.
  • Listen to their teachers and collaborate with them. How they behave in school is not necessarily how they behave at home.
  • Make sure you have time for them. When they approach, stop what you are doing and give them full attention. Plan ‘quality time’ with them.
  • Asking them questions works better than telling them what’s what. Drawing out the answer from them takes longer, but works so much better.
  • Watch body language. It can tell you more than they say.
  • Keep showing them that you love them, even if you don’t like all the things that they do.
  • Look for the positives and praise these. Say what you like about what they’ve done, rather than just saying ‘well done’.
  • Praise the effort more than the result. Encourage experimentation and a positive, inquiring approach to failure.
  • Touch them (appropriately, of course). Hug them. Pat them on the back. Human contact is much maligned and helps to bring people closer.
  • Model how you want them to be. Don’t respond to anger with anger. Be honest even when a little fib is easy. Show your humanity. Own up to failure or even the possibility of it.
  • Read books on child development but don’t force-fit the child into a particular model. Understanding people is not simple.
  • Beware of things becoming about what you want rather than what they need.
  • Watch yourself in your interactions. Get feedback from others about the dynamic between you and your kids.
  • Do your best for them, It's all you can do. In the end, you have to let them live their own lives, including making mistakes.
  • Use what works. If something doesn’t work, change how you do it or try something else.
  • Be endlessly patient and supportive. All this can take a long, long time.

If you have children and are making new year's resolutions, one of the best resolutions you can make is to change how you work with them to help resolve problems of the past and to help your children.


 

 

For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or the Blogs by subject. To comment on any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.

 

Best wishes,

 

Dave

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