Sifting – Chapter 17: Human Behavior and Strokes

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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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