habit of connection3

Habit Stacking Basics

It’s February, which means we have all had about a month to break our New Year’s Resolutions. I try to avoid making promises I can’t keep, so I listened to a podcast on upping my productivity, and I began to focus on a principle called habit stacking.

Habit stacking suggests that you add several manageable task onto another task you already do everyday. The podcast used this example—if you want to start working out everyday and you have a practice of going to the bathroom first thing every morning, put your running shoes on top of the toilet at night, which will remind you to wear them. Then do one push-up. It may seem too small of a goal, but by adding a sequence of tasks to something you already do, you will eventually create a new habit. The tasks are small, but stacked together, point us towards a new trajectory.

But what if we applied this idea towards improving our connections with those we love most? Connection could work in the same way. One of the most common goals we all have is to develop better relationships with our wife, kids, husband, and parents. Although it is a sought after goal, we often don’t know which steps to take to improve our connections.  

Making Connection a Goal

Understanding how you or someone else is feeling, and relating to them on that basis, builds a foundation for connection. The problem is that most of us do not even know what our true emotions are, much less what someone else’s emotions are. I’ve developed an Emotion Connection app to help people understand how to identify emotions. Once you see the emotions on another’s face and learn what they mean and how to identify them, you can then start to create a habit of connection.  

Habit Stack your way to Connection

Habit stacking your way to connection calls for a few simple rules in order to build on things you’re already doing. Everyone talks to people. But we rarely mine for emotions behind a conversation, behind a facial expression. Here are a few mini-habits you can implement to build towards connection:

    1. Listen (in a new way) – The next time you are with someone, pay attention to their facial expressions or how your own experience changes when you’re with them. For practice and information on what those expressions mean, download the app. Listen not only to what they are saying, but also to the emotional content. You’re trying to identify the basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, fear, smug or surprise. Anytime you’re talking to someone face to face, look for those cues. Notice the subtle movements of the eyes, lips, nose and mouth, which will display different subtle movements depending on the emotion someone is feeling.
    2. Be curious (about the meaning) – If you think you’ve identified anger, ask yourself why, what was the meaning behind it. Think about the circumstances and see if you can understand why they are experiencing the emotion they are demonstrating.
    3. Empathize – If you think you are certain of the information you’ve gathered from paying attention, and if the situation feels right, make an empathetic statement about how they are feeling. Give them time to answer, and be a good listener—empathize with their feelings.   
    4. Be open – It is normal to miss what someone is trying to communicate. Watch their reaction to your empathic statement. If you notice their body language is telling you they rejected it, consider that you might have misunderstood them. Or maybe they feel uncomfortable sharing with you about their emotions. Either way, be open to receiving feedback that you were incorrect and seek to understand them. “Help me to understand…”

Let me walk you through an example of how this worked for me.  Let’s say you see this expression on someone’s face while you are talking with them:

Can you guess this emotion?

Here is an example scenario:

Your friend is telling you she studied 60 hours per week for the past semester and still failed an exam. She really wants to go to law school, but now with a poor GPA does not know if she will make it. She feels defeated and down.  

Step 1: As she is telling you this information, she flashes a microexpression of anger (as in the video above).  

Step 2: You ponder, what is the goal of the anger? What is the meaning of the anger? Your hypothesis is that the goal behind her anger is to get to law school. Because the anger is not succeeding in overcoming the obstacle, and she does not know what next steps to take, she feels depressed.  

Step 3: You say, “Wow, I sense you feel really frustrated because you really want to get into law school and feel like you’re at a dead end.”  

Step 4: She looks down, crosses her arms and takes a deep sigh. She says nothing. You observe and decide that maybe you are missing something. “Help me understand, is something else going on?” She says, “I just feel so much shame about failing and I just picture my dad’s deep disappointment in my failure.”  

From this point you could go back to Step 1. You realize now she is feeling shame, a toxic belief about being defective and bad, which could emanate from early memories of her father’s critical appraisal of her performance and exploration. Hearing her you might empathize by saying, “I can imagine talking about this must be difficult, and I hear you would hate to disappoint your dad.” At this point, I would do the opposite of what a shaming response would be. I would bring it into the context of our relationship, and how I feel about her sharing with me. I might say, “Thank you so much for sharing with me, I really appreciate your courage to share with me, and I know you are very smart. I am wondering if you would consider exploring with me what else might be going on here. Something is not matching up, because I know you knew the material when we studied together.”  

Habit stacking has been helpful for me in working my way towards goals I normally would set, but would have trouble defining and completing. Something so ethereal as developing better relationships  can be broken down into “spend more time together” type of ideals, but habit stacking can help you break it even further down, into a second by second situation. Keep small, manageable goals and work your way through learning about emotions, what they look like on the face and feel like in the body, and you can easily start to habit stack your way to connecting with and understanding those you love.