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Changing Our Habits !

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

 The end of 2015 has occurred and with the start of 2016, many of us will make one or more resolutions to do something different, e.g. lose weight, get more exercise, or change our life in some small or not so small way.

For the first few weeks of 2016, we will keep our New Year’s resolutions but as time passes, they may fall by the wayside, and we will find ourselves doing the same things we promised ourselves we would avoid.

Why does this happen? Habits!  To do something differently, we have to break the habit. While this sounds difficult, it really is not so.  In The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Random House, New York 2012), the author explains “Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”  Our habits are really a three step process within our brains which the author calls “the Habit Loop”.  (Id. at 19.) The Habit Loop consists of;

 First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then, there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future…. (Id.)

As time passes and we repeat this loop over and over again, it becomes routine and thus, a habit. (Id.) At this point, “… the brain stops fully participating in decision making…”, and “…the pattern will unfold automatically.” (Id. at 20.) Once it becomes strong, it may evolve into a craving so that it is the craving that   powers the habit loop. (Id. at 33.)

So- how does one break this habit loop and thus a habit? When the cue, occurs, one creates a different routineor a new and different behavior, in order to obtain the reward. (Id. at 62.) As the author explains:

If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same. (Id.)

To put this into perspective, let’s say that every afternoon, one craves some chocolate.  But the daily chocolate is adding unwanted weight. So, what to do?

We must first ask ourselves, “Why do we want the chocolate?” Is it because we are low on energy, or need an excuse to get up and walk around, or to socialize or what? Once, we figure out the reason for the cue or craving, we then change the routine. If it is due to low energy, we grab a protein bar or something else that will provide energy but not be so caloric. If it is because we need to stretch- then we do so and take a walk and get some fresh air. If it is to socialize, then we do that!  If we accurately identify the reason behind the cue, and then change the routine to meet it, the reward should still be forthcoming! (Id. at 275-286.)

Another example which the author provides is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  Typically, stress is the cue that triggers the craving for alcohol. With that cue, the routine is to imbibe and the reward is the calming or numbing effect one feels from the alcohol.  What AA does is to help one create a new routine such as attending AA meetings, or attending therapy.   When under stress (the cue), rather than reaching for a drink (the routine), one will now use a different routine (AA meetings) and obtain the reward (the sense of relief.)  (Id. at 73.)

While the above has focused on changing physical habits, it can also apply to emotional habits: that is, how we react to others. For example, someone says something to us that makes us angry (cue). Our quick unthinking response is to say something nasty back (routine) which will make us feel “good” (reward). If, instead, when someone says something nasty to us (cue), we change our response by asking an open ended question about what is prompting the response (i.e., active listening and reframing) ( routine), we will feel the same emotional release at the end of the conversation (reward).

In truth, isn’t this what disputes are all about?  We have each created a habit loop in how to deal with others and with stressful situations.  By examining the elements of the “habit loop” – what are the triggers, cues orcravings– we can change the routine accordingly and still obtain the same reward. Indeed, this is what mediation is all about; changing the way or habits that people create and react to disputes!

I want to wish each of you a Very Happy Holiday and a wonderful New Year! May it bring you peace and   success with all of your resolutions!  Happy New Year!

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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