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The Sermon

Summary: “Better than just telling people what is important to you, show them!” 


The Sermon

Edgar Guest

I’d rather see a sermon, than hear one any day.

I’d rather you walk with me, than merely show the way.

For the lessons you deliver, may be very wise and true,

But I think I’ll get my lessons, by observing what you do.

I might misunderstand all this high advice you give,

But I won’t misunderstand how you act and how you live.


As Mr. McGuire said to Ben,”Will you think about it? Enough said!


Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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Sifting – Chapter 17: Human Behavior and Strokes

This posting is part of a series on my book Sifting. If you have not read the previous postings, please visit the menu above (click on Sifting) for a chronological listing of any previous chapters. Thanks!  


Chapter 17: Human Behavior and Strokes

Bob: Tell me about strokes, Sift.

Sift: Think of a stroke as a unit of human recognition. The desire for recognition is another of the strongly encoded and powerful human hungers that it is very beneficial to understand. For example, imagine passing someone in a hallway, saying hello and nodding to him or her, and then they do the same to you. That would be considered a two-stroke transaction. You stroked them; they stroked you in return. You both feel duly recognized. Now imagine the same thing, only the other person totally ignores you. They know you are passing. They heard your greeting. They saw your nod. But they did not return the stroke. They just walk by you without returning your greeting. How would you feel?

Bob: Not good!

Sift: If you use your imagination and tap into how the lack of recognition would make you feel in this very simple example, you can begin to understand the power and implications of strokes going back and forth between people. People hunger for food to help maintain their physical health. People hunger for strokes to help maintain their mental health.

Bob: That makes sense to me.

Sift: Now, let’s talk about different ways to categorize or think about strokes. First, strokes can be categorized as either positive or negative. It is very simple. Positive strokes create positive feelings, and negative strokes create negative feelings. This applies, of course, to reasonably well-adjusted people without serious psychological disorders. Remember, getting strokes is a way of achieving some measure of recognition and attention. In general, people seek positive strokes. However, in the absence of positive strokes, people also seek negative strokes to satisfy their hunger for recognition and attention. They may act in a way that provokes you to get frustrated or angry and respond with negative strokes.

Bob: Ha, I totally get that. If you have raised children, especially teenagers, you know all about negative strokes. They push your hot buttons to get your attention.

Sift: That is a good example, Bob. The same thing also applies to employees in a business organization, spouses, friends, and other important relationships in your life. The fact that people will often seek negative strokes in the absence of positive strokes explains a lot of unusual behavior.

Bob: What is the other way to categorize strokes?

Sift: You can also think of strokes as unconditional or conditional. As is implied, unconditional strokes are freely given with no return expectation of any kind. You give someone a stroke because you just want to do so. However, conditional strokes are given with some form of return expectation. You give someone a stroke, but you expect a stroke or something else in return. A condition is attached to the stroke. Does that make sense to you, Bob?

Bob: Yes.

Sift: Now, in order to better understand how strokes influence behavior, we need to break conditional strokes down into three categories.

Bob: Okay, what are they?

Sift: The three categories are performance-oriented conditional strokes, accommodation-oriented conditional strokes, and conformance-oriented conditional strokes. Each of these stroke patterns influences behavior in different ways. Let’s talk about each one separately.

Bob: Okay.

Sift: In the case of performance-oriented conditional strokes, a stroke is given and some sort of specific performance is expected in return, or you get strokes only after you meet the performance expectations of the stroke-giver. Parenting offers some of the best examples of how the stroke patterns work. Bob, can you think of how parents might use performance-oriented conditional strokes with their children?

Bob: Sure, you give your children strokes when they meet your expectations in terms of grades, athletic achievement, playing a musical instrument, or things like that.

Sift: Exactly, those are great examples.

Bob: What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t parents encourage their children to excel?

Sift: There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Problems arise when this is the overwhelmingly predominant kind of strokes a child receives. Although not necessarily explicitly stated, the message the child receives is: I love you or value you more when you perform to my standards. Because this form of recognition is so externally oriented, it has the potential to…

Bob: Oh, I get it. It can cause someone to develop an unhealthy external locus of control, can’t it? That’s what you were talking about earlier. That’s why you brought all this up.

Sift: Exactly. By the way, it is not a matter of the child growing up to be highly successful in terms of the way society typically judges success. Some of the highest achievers in our society – doctors, attorneys, politicians, military leaders, and entrepreneurs – grew up on a steady diet of performance-oriented conditional strokes. It is a matter of maintaining an internal locus of control, contentment, happiness, fulfillment, well-being, and overall satisfaction with life. High achievement and living an engaging, fulfilling life do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is, however, very difficult to balance these two desires if you are still operating under the strong influence of performance-oriented conditional strokes.

Bob: Wow, I get it. You are still trying too hard to please your parents, aren’t you?

Sift: Yes, your parents, any other influential people from your past, or people in your current life who trigger thoughts and feelings of those past influencers. This is all a matter of balance. As I mentioned earlier, it is fine to allow yourself to be influenced by others; you just need to value your own opinion and desires as much as, or more than, you value the opinions of others.

Bob: And in some cases, you should totally ignore what others think you should do with your life, right?

Sift: Yes.

Bob: You mentioned two other patterns. What are they?

Sift: The second pattern, accommodation-oriented conditional strokes, is almost identical to the pattern we just discussed. There is one slight distinction.

Bob: What’s that?

Sift: With the first pattern, the person seeking the strokes knows the rules, so to speak, for getting strokes. They know the specific performance that is required. In your example, that might be grades, athletic achievement, or expertise on a musical instrument. With accommodation-oriented conditional strokes, the specific performance is unclear or unknown.

Bob: So what do they do to get strokes?

Sift: They experiment and try all kinds of things in hopes of getting some strokes. They, in effect, go first and often become the class clowns and embrace other forms of people-pleasing behavior, or behavior that is likely to attract attention.

Bob: That sounds like another formula for developing an external locus of control.

Sift: Yes, it is. Once again, it can lead to extraordinary accomplishment if channeled properly. Many prominent actors, comedians, and other performers grew up on a steady diet of accommodation-oriented conditional strokes. The pattern only produces problems when it becomes too predominant and begins to negatively impact overall happiness and well-being. People begin to try too hard to get strokes and lose their sense of autonomy and authenticity.

Bob: You end up with a lot of unhappy people. Everyone is pleased except the people-pleaser.

Sift: Right.

Bob: What is the other pattern?

Sift: The other pattern is conformance-oriented conditional strokes. In this pattern, a person knows exactly how to get strokes. They must diligently conform to the standards of the stroke-givers. It is not a matter of getting strokes with this pattern; it is more a matter of losing them or knowing you will not receive them if you do not conform.

Bob: Huh? Can you give me an example?

Sift: Sure, in the case of a young man, it might be a father’s desire that his son join the military. Perhaps the father tells his son, “I was in the Marines. Your grandfather was a Marine. His father was a Marine. And you want to play guitar and be a rock star?” In this case, the son is guaranteed strokes if he conforms to the so-called family tradition and joins the Marines. He loses strokes if he pursues his own path and chooses to be a musician. Of course, the tradition can be related to anything, not just a specific profession. Perhaps a young woman is told, “Your mother stayed at home and took care of her children, as did your grandmother and her mother. And you want to be a career woman and farm your children out to a day-care center?” In both cases, the person gets strokes for conforming to tradition and loses strokes if they choose not to conform. Among other things, as adults, they might have difficulty making decisions because decisions were typically made for them.

Bob: Another way people lose their sense of control over their lives, right? So what do you do as a parent? How do you balance all of this?

Sift: Balance is a very good choice of words. All people experience all of these stroke patterns. One of the patterns usually emerges as predominant. You serve your children best when the predominant pattern they experience is unconditional strokes. And this is also true with friends, family, coworkers, subordinates, and bosses. If you provide people with a steady diet of unconditional strokes, the sense that you value, respect, and care about them unconditionally, the conditional strokes are fine.

Bob: So I counter-balance all the conditional strokes with unconditional strokes? I separate their value as a human from their behavior and things like that? That sounds pretty philosophical-minded.

Sift: Yes, yes, and you are right.

Bob: Sift, I think I know my predominant stroke pattern. My parents were always on me about my grades. It was performance-oriented conditional strokes, wasn’t it?

Sift: Yes.

Bob: What do I need to do about that now?

Sift: Bob, the purpose of this discussion is mainly about awareness. It is helpful to be aware of certain things if you want to better understand yourself and others important to you. Our discussions about past influences are more about solving puzzles than solving problems. If it is helpful to understand things from your past, then you should explore them. However, most of your problem-solving ideas and strategies will be future-oriented.

Bob: What exactly do you mean by “future-oriented”?

Sift: For example, the best way to get rid of an old habit that is not serving you well is to form a new habit to replace, or override, the old habit. You don’t dwell on the old habit any more than you must to understand how to move forward. Then you mainly focus on the new habit. Therefore, your time is best spent focusing on what you are going to do next to create different and desired results in the future, rather than dwelling too much on the past.

Bob: So the main lesson in all of this stuff about strokes is to try and make people feel unconditionally accepted.

Sift: Yes, if people sense that you are doing that, it is much easier to deal with differences of opinion and even conflict.

Bob: This is a lot to think about. I need a break, if it is okay with you. I forgot what else you said we would talk about next. What was it?

Sift: Tapes, a closely related subject. It is something else that explains why it is so easy to develop an external locus of control. And remember, all of this is about obstacles to pursuing your true calling in life. Take as long as you need. Think of some of the people you know well. It is usually easy to guess their predominant stroke pattern and understand the implications of their pattern in terms of their behavior. Mostly, think about the implications of your predominant pattern. We’ll talk about tapes when you are ready.

Bob: Okay, Sift.


End Chapter 17

Author’s Notes:

Main takeaway: Make sure people important to you feel unconditionally accepted.  

  1. How would you explain strokes to another person?
  2. Can you describe the different categories of strokes (positive, negative, unconditional, conditional, performance-oriented conditional, accommodation-oriented conditional, conformance-oriented conditional) and how they might influence adult behavior?
  3. Why do you think it is beneficial to understand human strokes and stroke patterns?
  4. What was your predominant stroke pattern as a child? How has that pattern affected you as an adult?


 The entire book will eventually be posted on this blog. However, if you want a copy for yourself, or as a gift for a friend, you can find it at this link: Sifting

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Strategic Thinking: Does That Make Sense?

Summary: “Embrace unbiased thinking.” 

It appears that as humans we have a “makes sense” switch in our brains. Here is the way it works. First we decide what we think about an issue and take a position on it. Then we run our decision through some sort of mental process to gather information in support of our position. Often, when we first stumble across any evidence that causes us to think, “That makes sense,” we abandon any further exploration, store our position in memory for possible future use and move on to the next thing.

Once such a decision is stored in memory, we develop strong mental filters that allow new information in support of our position to easily enter our minds and block information that does not support our position. We, in effect, create our own extremely biased internal mental pundits similar to the folks you see and hear blathering on endlessly on CNN, Fox News and other radio and TV shows.

Of course, there are at least two things seriously wrong with this approach. First, a person should probably refrain from deciding on a position before looking at any evidence and second, it is not a good idea to stop exploration after encountering the first bit of supporting “makes sense” evidence.

For example, two items that serve the same purpose cost $5 and $10 respectively. If you are a price-sensitive buyer, you might quickly conclude that the first item sells for half the price of the second item; therefore it makes sense to buy the $5 item. However, if your frame of mind is cost sensitivity rather than price sensitivity, you might explore further and discover that the second item will easily last three times longer than the first item. Based on this new information, it makes more sense to buy the second item.

So, how can we avoid this type of mistake in running our businesses and lives? Here’s an idea. When you have important decisions to make that will strongly impact your long-term success, ask the best minds in your company and among your friends to consider both sides of the issue and prepare for a debate-like discussion. However, do not tell them which side of the debate they will be asked to specifically defend until you meet to discuss the issue.

Researchers have tested this idea by giving people a proposal and asking them to read and draw conclusions on its fairness and prepare for a discussion. If they were told which side they would argue beforehand, they read it quite differently than when they were not told which side they would be defending.

This sounds like an idea worth trying in your business to settle differences and creatively explore options related to products, service, hiring, incentives and many other aspects of a typical business. Maybe it can help you and your employees avoid the “makes sense” thinking trap. And it seems like an idea worth trying in your life in general.

For extra credit, make sure the front-line people who will actually have to execute any strategy are included in the discussion.

Joyfully participate in life today!

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What Matters Most? (Part 4): Viewpoint of the Dying

Summary: “Dying people’s main regrets were things that you can easily have.” 

In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, author Bronnie Ware wrote about her experiences as a personal caregiver for terminally ill people. She was intensely involved with the care of these people for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. According to Bronnie, “Not everyone had regrets, but a lot more did than didn’t.”  Reading her book, or at a minimum knowing about these regrets of the dying, might help you be among “those who don’t have regrets” when you come to the end of your life. Here are the top five regrets that she heard over and over from those under her care:

I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expect of me. This was the most common regret. In a body of knowledge called transactional analysis, experts speak of an ego state (frame of mind and associated behavior) called the Natural Child. This is the part of your psyche that is childlike (as opposed to childish) and simply “wants what it wants.” When you are making significant decisions in life, it is a good idea to “get into the Natural Child state of mind” and determine what you truly want before proceeding. Maybe you can, or cannot, find a way to make what you want happen when considering the realities of your circumstances, but why wouldn’t you at least begin by getting guidance from your Natural Child ego state? At a minimum, this might help you avoid frequently defaulting to what others expect of you.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (even said often by people who loved their work). According to Bronnie, “There is no point in success without balance.” Hard workers often felt they missed too much of their children and grandchildren’s lives and quality time with their life companion.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. People suppressed their feelings too often just to keep the peace. They regretted holding on to resentment and their unwillingness to deal with, or terminate, unhealthy relationships sooner.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Many people missed their friends and felt lonely when they were dying, but often had no idea how to get in touch with them.

I wish I had let myself be happier. They desired more smiling, laughing and silliness in their lives.

Death has a way of stripping away many of the superficial concerns of life and helping people focus on the truly important. I believe paying attention to these dying people’s regrets will help you joyfully participate in life. Thanks to Bronnie for capturing their wisdom.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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What Matters Most? (Part 3): Viewpoint of Septuagenarians (and older)

Summary: “Learn from those who already know what you are hopefully going to know someday.”  

When preparing to write his book The Power of Purpose, author Richard Leider interviewed hundreds of people in their 70s and 80s (and followed up in subsequent years interviewing more people each year) and asked a simple question: “If you could live your life over again, what would you change?” Most of his responses fell into one of three categories:

  1. I would see the big picture.
  2. I would be more courageous.
  3. I would make more of a positive difference.

I’m not a member of that age bracket yet, but I am close enough to it, and have lived long enough, to understand these three comments.

I would see the big picture: Mr. Leider’s subjects often said, “they were so busy living day-to-day that they truly missed living their lives.” I personally hear people talk about wanting to eliminate, or at least minimize, busyness all the time. They want relief from a treadmill-like life experience. They want to focus on what is important and escape from reactive-responsive/crisis mode living.

I would be more courageous: One of the main issues here was to take more creative risk in life, especially when it comes to finding work and activities that were more meaningful to them.

I would make more of a positive difference: Unfortunately, everyone you interact with on a regular basis either energizes and uplifts you, or drains your energy. The interviewees seemed to want to operate in a way that would make all who encountered them think – “I am better off because I met that person.”

These seem like simple, and doable, things to me. However, I don’t think it is a good idea to wait until you are a septuagenarian to begin working on them. If you haven’t already done so, why not begin now? It seems like a good way to joyfully participate in life.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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Worry Pivoting

Summary: “Focus on positive pleasurable events to counter worrisome thoughts.” 

We all worry at times. Here’s an idea the experts (including Jeffrey Schwartz and Norman Doidge) suggest for serious worriers that may also help you deal with your serious worries, or even some of your garden-variety everyday worrisome thoughts.

When you find yourself worrying too much about something, refocus on a positive or pleasurable event for 15 to 30 minutes.

Here’s why and how it works. In general there are three phases to worrisome events and three brain areas that take the lead in handling the different phases:

  1. The mistake/something’s wrong feeling (orbital frontal cortex)
  2. The anxious/I need to do something feeling (cingulate gyrus)
  3. The shift gears/let it go and move on feeling (caudate nucleus)

Think of the three brain areas as your worry circuit. For various reasons, the third structure, the caudate nucleus, gets stuck at times…so you don’t move on and the worrisome thoughts escalate or persist.

Thinking of a positive or pleasurable event at that very moment (the moment you begin to feel stuck in a mental loop), in effect, shifts gears on your worry circuit manually. If you do this enough, two good things happen: the new circuit focused on positive thoughts strengthens and the old circuit atrophies or weakens. The technical term for this process is neuroplasticity (see also posting on Habits and Neuroplasticity). In plain English, the new circuit will eventually override the old circuit. You are, in effect, changing channels on your worrisome thoughts.

A very thorough and highly readable explanation of how this works is in chapter 6 of Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. Check that out if you are tired of worrying too much and want to know more.

I know this sounds too simple to work, but this is not just an anecdotal opinion. Brain scans by Dr. Schwartz confirmed that it really works and works quite well. And learning to pivot your thoughts when you find yourself worrying excessively is a good way to joyfully participate in life.

If that doesn’t work try this or this.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris        

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The Story of Two Wolves

Summary: “Nurture good, starve evil.” 

Most of you have probably seen or heard this story many times. Considering what is going on in the world these days, I thought it would be a good reminder for those of you who want to do something to make things better. Feed the right wolf and help others do so if you can. 

The Story of Two Wolves 

One evening and old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.

One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

…Author Unknown

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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Are Your Choices Yours?

Summary: “Rethink your choices and make sure they are yours.” 

Sometimes we fail to stop and think about how much parents and early childhood caregivers still influence our current behavior (even when they are no longer living).

For example, nature designed us to eat when we are hungry and quit eating when we are no longer hungry. That sounds simple and straightforward. And nature even gives us guidance on when to eat and when to stop. A hormone called ghrelin takes the lead in letting us know we are hungry and it’s time to eat; likewise, another hormone called leptin signals that our hunger is satisfied and it’s time to stop eating. All in all, it’s a pretty good system to help us regulate our food intake…but then some parents decide to mess with Mother Nature. And messing with Mother Nature, of course, is rarely a good idea.

Your parents probably meant well if they constantly pestered you about cleaning your plate, but what message did you likely receive as a child when you heard this statement? Probably something along the lines of…the amount of food on my plate is the best measure of how much I should eat, not the actual presence or absence of hunger. So, given that we live in a super-size and relatively abundant food environment, some of us grow up and frequently overeat as adults. When a large quantity of food somehow gets on our plate, we feel we need to eat it…all of it!

This is just one example of how we are not necessarily in conscious control of many of our daily decisions. In this example, we are not really making a current decision to eat or not eat a certain quantity of food. We are just continuing a decision that our parents made for us years ago. We are grown-ups in chronological and biological terms, but we are acting like children who can’t decide things for ourselves from a psychological point of view.

I’ll bet you can think of other examples of how you continue decisions your parents made for you years ago. Maybe it’s your political or religious beliefs. Where you choose to live. What you do for a living. All of this is fine if you agree with the original decision. However, as in the case of the “clean your plate” decision, you might want to rethink some of your choices in life just to make sure they are your choices and not someone else’s. This is all about being autonomous, and being autonomous helps you joyfully participate life.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris


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Questioning Your Way to Closeness

Summary: “Thirty-Six Questions That Can Create or Revive Romance.” 

Close relationships, especially close romantic relationships, have what you might call a hormonal shelf life. I’ve seen various comments by so-called experts that say this shelf life might be as long as two years if you are lucky. But what do you do when Mother Nature’s chemical cocktail wears off and the hormonally induced excitement begins to fade.

According to Arthur Aron and his research associates (and the results of their brain imaging and lab experiments) one of the things you can do is simply sit down with your relationship partner and ask each other 36 specific questions. In their scientific paper, they refer to the questioning process as “a practical methodology for creating closeness in an experimental context.” Those scientific folks really know how to make things sound like fun, don’t they?

The fact is, I think you will have fun doing this with a potential life partner, or a long-term existing life partner. Take an evening off from the TV, or whatever you do with your time when the events of the day settle down, relax, maybe pour a glass of wine and discuss the 36 questions with your partner. In the experiment, they suggested that you take 45 minutes to an hour to go over all the questions. Here’s a short article explaining Dr. Aron’s work that includes the questions.

As for the hormonal shelf-life of relationships, that just means you have to begin putting more effort into the relationship to keep it going and enjoyable for both of you. Discussing the 36 questions is a great way to do that. Here are a few sample questions:

  • Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  • What is your most treasured memory?
  • Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “

If you care about having an enjoyable long-term relationship, or keeping the one you have going, try the 36-question exercise. According to science, it’s a good way to joyfully participate in life.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris


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Tripping Over a Dollar to Get to a Nickel

Summary: “Stop confusing frenetic motion with constructive action.”

My old boss used to love to accuse people of “tripping over a dollar to get to a nickel.” It was his folksy way of saying their priorities were all screwed up. He was usually right…and surprisingly, supported by a bit of brain science.

It’s relatively simple. A specific part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, serves to help you control impulsive behavior.

  • When you are reasonably focused and calm, this part of your brain is operating at peak efficiency. It keeps you from checking e-mails or web surfing when you have much more important things to do.
  • When you are unfocused, overloaded, rushed or under stress, this part of your brain is dialed back or shut down completely. Unimportant tasks become the equivalent of shiny objects.

The lesson in all of this?

  • Carve out at least a part of your day to slow down and get highly focused.
  • I suggest starting with three 32-minute blocks of time. That’s a total of 96 minutes a day. Remember the old theory – you get 80 percent of your results from 20 percent of your efforts? Well, 96 minutes of focused effort is 20 percent of an eight-hour workday.
  • Block out all distractions and set a timer for 32 minutes. Stay focused on the “dollars” on your agenda and ignore the “nickels.”
  • Or if you are serious, try focusing for an entire 96-minute block of time.

I admit this is an insanely simple idea – my favorite kind of idea – but it absolutely works. It accomplishes at least two important things, it allows you to get a lot of important things done in a day and it starts creating new and more productive neural pathways in your brain to replace old pathways that cause you to confuse frenetic motion with constructive action.

Stop tripping over shiny nickels! It’s a good way to joyfully participate in life.

Joyfully participate in life today…Chris

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