Tell Them When They're Right

I don’t care who or what you’re working with, if they’re sentient, they all want to:

  • be right
  • feel smart
  • be praised
  • feel accepted or loved or cared for (or all three)

When they don’t know what to do or get it wrong, they want to:

  • be taught how to be right
  • know they’re still accepted
  • understand how to make amends if they messed something up


It’s All About Your Relationship

Just the tiniest “correct” moment is a chance to build trust, to increase the likelihood that someone will respond to me. I don’t care if it’s my kids, my chickens, my dogs, or my coworkers. Catch them when they’re right a few times, and you’ll see their eyes light up, their behavior change just a little bit. There’s your in; not to manipulate, but to build your relationship. Storytime!

Reba, Canine Overthinker

Reba’s a very smart herding dog. She wants to be right all the time, to an extreme over most thinking creatures I know. She worries about being right and thrives when she’s taught. In return, she’s taught me more about good relationships than almost anyone else. If we can’t trust each other, we can’t be a team for agility.

She hasn’t loved having little kids around all that much. Except at dinnertime. She’s a great floor and hand cleaner, but she gets a little overzealous. She’s supposed to stay on her mat at dinner, but she’s often under the table looking for scraps. She mostly knows better than to get up, but the scraps are worth the risk.

Some days, I holler at her about it, but she always gets surly and takes out her frustration on another dog or sulks. It’s actually easier to get up and get my clicker and some rewards and pay her for the correct behavior. Then it sticks. For a couple days at least. And she smiles while she’s at it.

An Engineer We’ll Call Fred

Fred’s a midlevel engineer. He’s sorta checked out, but we’re new to the same team, and he’s got obvious potential. So I challenge him a bit. “Can you abstract these functions here so they’re easier to maintain?” “How about breaking this part of the tests out so we can use it for other tests?” He responds, and I find the stuff I really like in his code and praise it during reviews. He responds more.

Six months later, that code he broke out has spawned three more types of tests, two of which he wrote himself. One was written by a junior engineer we were mentoring. On top of that, he was engaged, he asked tough questions (at my request), and I can’t wait to see the next level of his evolution.

A Preschooler

My four year old has become quite a sweet boy. From the start, we encouraged him to help around the house and to be loving and, eventually, to understand others feelings. Part of this involves catching him when he’s doing what we want:

  • 22 months: “I love how you brought a bowl to help feed your newborn brother.”
  • 3 years: “Thank you for helping to [set the table | sweep the porch | help put clothes away]” (nevermind the actual skill involved; it was the effort I wanted)
  • 4 years: He kisses my back when it hurts, helps his 2 year old brother with things, offers to bring things for his teacher when she’s missing something.

Someone Difficult for Me

I have a hard relationship wtih someone close to me. She repulses me and drives me nuts. Can this work for her? Yes. Perhaps too well. My baseline respect for everyone made her think I wanted more of a relationship than I actually do. I cleared that up and she keeps her distance and I am respectful and thank her for that space.

The Truth

How I praise my dogs is different from my children, which is vastly different than working with adults. However, the principle isn’t different.

Please, thank you, “I like how you…”, all that stuff. It matters. In every relationship you have.

Abuse and Covid-19, or How my Childhood Prepared Me for a Pandemic Take your Test Strategy to the Next Level (Presentation Slides)
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