“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”
-Will Rogers (attributed)
My phone rang just after midnight. It was my buddy, Chris. “I screwed up dude—I think it’s over.”
Groggy, and a little bugged that I he was calling me so late, I tried to collect my thoughts. I spent an hour earlier that evening telling Chris that he should give his girlfriend some space. They were fighting quite a bit, and it was clear that he needed to give the relationship some time to breathe. Apparently, my advice didn’t sink in. “Why did you call her?” I asked.
“I called her because I was missing her, and I was hoping that she was missing me, too.”
“So, what happened?”
“Dude, she just was so cold. I tried to just be warm and loving—like we used to be—but she was just giving me one word answers and staying really distant. That’s when I started to ask her about us...”
Unbeknownst to Chris, he had just made a crucial error. He was pushing Heather further and further away—almost to the point of no return. To explain why, I will have to rewind the story about a half century back.
The Science of Commitment
In the mid-1960’s, psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser discovered a fascinating phenomenon about the way that people develop their beliefs and attitudes. They conducted a series of classic experiments that demonstrated that people who made small commitments to a certain cause or idea were much more likely to make larger commitments to that same idea in the future.
One of the ways they tested this idea was by having a researcher pose as a volunteer worker and go door-to-door asking homeowners to put a large, unattractive sign in their front yard with the words, “DRIVE CAREFULLY” written on it. In the first set of houses, 83% of the homeowners declined. But in the second set of homes, the responses were almost entirely reversed—with 76% responding in the affirmative.
What accounted for this huge difference? It turns out that two weeks earlier, residents from the second group were asked to put a much smaller sign in their doorway. The sign was only three square inches. It was such a small gesture that almost everyone complied. But that tiny decision was more consequential than they thought. Something about committing to putting the small sign in their doorway made the second group four-and-a-half times more likely to say yes to the big ugly sign just a couple weeks later. Incredible.
The data from this study were so compelling that the strategy of seeking small commitments before seeking bigger ones earned a nickname. It's called “the foot-in-the-door technique” and it has become an increasingly common strategy amongst salespeople and other compliance professionals. The idea behind this tactic is to get people to go on record (by word or pen) indicating that they like a certain brand or offer. Once people have made even a small commitment, they become much more likely to make larger commitments later. Next time you accept a sample of a product in the mall, think twice before you politely tell the sales person that you “like it.” If you do, their follow up question will almost certainly be a request to make purchase, “considering that you like the product so much...”
Unbeknownst to Chris, he had unwittingly used the foot-in-the-door strategy against his own interests during his conversation with Heather. Leading up to the time he pressed her to have a deep conversation with him, she was growing increasingly frustrated about a few things in their relationship. Not sort of things that would’ve necessarily caused her to leave—but things that gave her negative feelings nonetheless.
At this inopportune time, when Heather was slightly pulling back, Chris forced her hand. “You’ve been acting so weird about us lately—it’s like you’re withdrawn or something. I don’t know what changed, Heather, but it feels like you want to be done with the relationship. Is that true?”
“I don’t know, Chris—we just haven’t been getting along….”
“So, what are you saying? Are we through? Just tell me, one way or the other.”
“I guess so, Chris. It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that I’m not in love with you anymore. I’m sorry.”
Chris’ big mistake was forcing Heather to escalate the discussion to make definitive statements about the state of their relationship while she was not in a positive emotional place. By escalating the conversation to a discussion about the state of their relationship, he forced her to go on record about her feelings. Telling someone that you’re not in love with them anymore is not an easy thing to take back. When Heather said those words out loud, it was a clear turning point for their relationship.
A Better Path
There are a thousand ways that Chris could’ve avoided a break-up that night. He could’ve not called her in the first place. Or he could’ve sensed Heather’s frustration with him during the call, and let her have her space for a couple days. He could’ve even sent her some flowers with a nice, upbeat note. Any of these paths would’ve allowed Chris to buy some time to help things in their relationship feel positive and fun again.
But he didn’t. He confronted her at the lowest moment of their relationship and escalated the situation by asking her to tell him where they stood, definitively. He used the foot-in-the-door technique in reverse.
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to look back at Chris’ actions and criticize. But it’s more helpful to think through why he was so insistent that night, so that we can learn how to avoid doing the same thing. When I asked Chris why he persisted, he told me that it was because he felt insecure. Subconsciously, he was begging her to save him from the emotional freefall that he was experiencing. “Just say that you still love me.” “Just tell me that things will be alright!” Sadly, this cry for help backfired—It brought about the very thing he feared.
What’s the lesson in all this? Is it to avoid difficult discussions in hopes that things will just blow over? Hardly. The lesson is that there is a time and a place to have serious discussions. And when we’re feeling overly emotional, we should avoid escalating conversations to places that we can’t recover from. We should especially avoid forcing our partner to make decisions about the relationship when they’re in a bad place. Give them the space necessary to understand how they really feel.
Emotions are like the weather. They come and go. In life, knowing how to handle emotions adaptively can spell the difference between happiness or heartbreak. When we’re dealing with other people’s feelings, it’s important that we remain flexible enough to allow them to experience negative emotions at times. If we have the maturity to do that, we create a space for our partner to make positive statements and commitments about our relationship. And, of course, when people make even small positive commitments, they become more likely to make bigger ones in the future.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The point of this article is learning damage control. It’s about not turning small cuts into gaping wounds, from which you can never recover. In that spirit, let’s remember Will Rogers’ old cowboy wisdom— "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
About the Author
Danny Southwick is a researcher for High Performance Institute. In 2015, he earned a master of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He currently works as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Angela Duckworth and Allyson Mackey.
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