As a life coach who supports leaders of complex projects, I’m often asked about my approach to turning around distressed initiatives where emotions run high, yet transformation hangs in the balance.

I’ve found the root issue is rarely a technical complication or contractual quagmire. More often, it’s dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics. The path forward necessitates influencing central players to shift their behaviors.

Over the years, I’ve become adept at catalyzing such changes. Still, there remained one immovable force in my life – my own father – whose actions seemed immune to any sway.

We’ve always shared a warm bond brimming with trust. Yet he assumed an old-school Asian parental mindset that his wisdom eclipsed mine. Despite my adventures across the globe and higher education, I was to seek his counsel; he was not to entertain mine. My attempts to advise him regarding health, finances, or communication were categorical disasters.

I acquiesced to this lopsided arrangement until a spritely squirrel entered our lives and revealed I lacked insight into the key ingredient for influencing behavior.

An Adorable Invader Upends the Apple Cart

Dad flourished amidst the chirping, scurrying menagerie of our childhood home. But his new apartment afforded limited space for critters. While resigned, everything changed when a friend offered an infant squirrel.

“It will remain small, and the grandkids will adore it!” he claimed. “If need be, we can return it to the wild.”

So, Dad adopted this new housemate, ostensibly for the children.

From day one, the squirrel was clearly distressed, oscillating between lethargic despair and frenzied panic. Yet whenever we raised concern, Dad redirected, “The children would be heartbroken without him!” This rang hollow as they paid it no mind. In truth, only Dad lavished it with attention and upgrades to its environment, desperately attempting to ease its discomfort.

As Dad’s health declined, the unhygienic conditions posed by this unconventional pet could no longer be ignored. The squirrel had to go. But Dad would not be moved…or so we believed.

My brother took an authoritarian approach, demanding its removal. Mom opted for nagging criticism. I armed myself with logic and information. All efforts failed week after week.

Then, one day, after a single 15-minute conversation with my sister-in-law, Dad had a sudden change of heart! He not only agreed to release the squirrel but suggested doing so promptly.

I was dumbfounded. How had she succeeded where we had met unflinching resistance?

Cracking the Code on Behavior Change

I slowly uncovered that she possessed preternatural talents for influencing Dad’s choices, whether surrounding critical matters like health and business or mundane decisions such as what to eat for dinner. This high school graduate outmaneuvered even my brother’s university-trained financial acumen.

Moreover, she employed no manipulative tactics nor relied on spreadsheets, statistics, or impassioned appeals. She simply made requests.

Clearly, the elephant in the room was emotional bank accounts. While Dad trusted us all, only my sister-in-law maintained a healthy balance in hers with him. I became determined to uncover her secrets.

The Emotional Bank Account

In his seminal work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey introduced the metaphor of an Emotional Bank Account to represent the amount of positive connection between two people.

Per Covey, deposits encompass any exchange that builds trust and understanding, like active listening, keeping promises, responding to bids for attention, communicating appreciation, extending sincere apologies, and granting forgiveness.

Withdrawals are interactions that deplete goodwill, like lying, criticism, betrayal, and disrespect. However, they also include faux pas that seem minor by comparison – breaking commitments, dismissing feelings, ignoring needs, and asking favors.

This last one often goes unrecognized. Requesting someone alter their behavior makes substantial withdrawals since change demands profound effort and self-discipline. Essentially, you are asking them to siphon their precious internal resources to comply with your appeal. If their account reserves run low, they may deny transactions.

Suddenly, it struck me why we had failed with Dad. We kept making withdrawal requests before making enough deposits to fund them. Monitoring my sister-in-law provided clues for how to rectify this.

Making Emotional Deposits

If you seek to influence someone but past appeals have fallen flat, try shoring up their account balance first with the following practices:

1. Invest in What Matters to Them

I suddenly recognized my well-meaning quality time with Dad centered around my preferences, not his. My sister-in-law displayed genuine curiosity about his interests and tailored interactions accordingly.

For example, when Dad yearned for a special snack, she went the extra mile to hunt it down, though it held no personal appeal. Or she reviewed medical reports with him for hours, providing a patient listening ear to alleviate his anxiety despite barely grasping the data herself.

I had reasoned outdoor excursions suited Dad’s health needs when, in truth, he would have preferred leisurely conversations over tea. We make emotional deposits using currency that carries value to the account holder. Monopoly money won’t cut it.

2. Make Timely, Consistent Investments

Initially, America’s credit rating system bewildered me. Then, I understood that fidelity and dependability over time foster trust in financial and emotional realms alike. Sporadic deposits don’t yield meaningful balances.

Consider renowned psychologist Dr. John Gottman’s famous “Magic Ratio” for sustaining relationships. He studied 130 newlywed couples and discovered those still married six years later responded positively to their partner’s overtures 86% of the time. Those who eventually divorced scored only 33%.

More importantly, continually turning toward one’s significant other trumped negativity or conflict as the key predictor of separation. My sister-in-law intuitively grasped this. She offered Dad undivided attention whenever possible, not merely when convenient.

3. Stick to a 5:1 Positivity Ratio

Can we realistically expect every human exchange to be affirmative? Certainly not – all relationships involve ups and downs. What matters most is that deposits outpace withdrawals by a comfortable margin.

Experts promote a [Magic Ratio” where five positive interactions counterbalance each negative one. They further illuminate that while outright criticism clearly withdraws goodwill, failing to notice someone also constitutes a negative exchange.

My sister-in-law didn’t barrage Dad with requests like we had. She waited patiently, accruing sufficient capital to cover the squirrel withdrawal before ever making it.

Key Takeaway

The squirrel saga concluded swiftly once my sister-in-law approached Dad. She recognized deposits must outweigh withdrawals for the other party to willingly assent to behavior change. Requests made when reserves run low may, therefore, meet resistance or refusal.

We often take treasured friends and family for granted, assuming longevity grants leeway regarding emotional overdrafts. And at times it does. But when seeking major or immediate alterations, you will obtain better outcomes by first filling their cup through genuine deposits.

Otherwise, you risk misinterpreting their reaction, chalking it up to a bad day, or lacking care about a “small” request when inadequate savings supply the truer explanation. Like financial capital, emotional equity requires ongoing investment and care. A well-established relationship may overlook temporary neglect but is unlikely to fund substantial withdrawals.

So when feeling exasperated by a reluctant colleague, recalcitrant child, or stubborn spouse, recall it’s not enough to simply have trust. Consider your balance sheet by asking, “Have I made enough timely deposits to support this withdrawal?” If not, make amends first.

As George Eliot wrote, “Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.” Seek genuine emotional investment, and you’ll be amazed at the behavioral influence possible through such soulful connections.