By Ed Ford
From his book, Discipline For Home And School, Book One, Third Edition
Why is the Responsible Thinking Process® so powerful, and why is it so successful with those who are willing to work at reordering their lives? What really goes on inside people as they begin to look within themselves and decide how they want to be? In order to understand the power of this process and what is really taking place inside people during and following the RTP® questioning process, it is important to learn how our mind and body interact to achieve our various goals.
Each of us is endowed with a fascinating perceptual system (explained by Perceptual Control Theory, created by William Powers, author of Behavior: The Control of Perception and Making Sense of Behavior) that is designed to make sense of our environment so we can build a satisfying life. That perceptual system enables us to give individual meaning to the world we live in. We fashion this meaning through various systemic levels. Ultimately, there is a highest level where each of us stands as our own person-where “I am the captain of my own ship.” Below are brief descriptions of the three highest levels of the perceptual system, which guide who we are and everything we do
Systems Concepts Level: From this level flow all of the standards and structures we create to have satisfying lives. This is the level where we look within ourselves and establish the way we want to be, how we want to see ourselves as persons, and the kinds of values and beliefs that we believe will bring us happiness. The way we treat others when we are trying to accomplish our goals is reflected in our beliefs and values. And when a person changes how they treat others, this is the level where that change must be internally compatible, or there will be conflict within the changing person’s system.
Young children do not have the well-developed understanding of beliefs and values at the Systems Concepts level that adults have. Our understanding of the world develops from our experiences, and our concepts at the higher levels become more sophisticated as we mature. However, even young children can say whether they are “happy” or “unhappy,” even if they cannot articulate their beliefs and values in detail.
Principles Level: Once we have established how we want to be, it naturally follows that we need to set parameters that define our goals. The Principles level is where we set our priorities and the standards, criteria, and guidelines that establish boundaries on how we should live so as to reflect our values and beliefs. The test for the validity of our standards is our internal satisfaction with how we are living our life. Indeed, we should be able to learn a lot about others from their priorities and standards.
Program Level: In order to live the way we want, based on the criteria we have set, we must have effective programs for accomplishing our goals, so that the plans we make bring us satisfaction. If we want to live in harmony with others, achieving our goals means that we must not violate others’ rights. This means that we must not act as disturbances to their attempts to get what they want. So we must each find ways to organize our thinking by creating structured programs, which, when implemented, allow us to accomplish our goals without infringing on the rights of others.
Whenever there is a conflict within our perceptual system, such as when there are conflicting beliefs or standards, our system senses the conflict and eventually might begin to reorganize itself, generating random signals that suggest various ways that might resolve the conflict. Some of these ways, if applied, might reduce the conflict, many would not. When we ultimately come up with a way to reduce conflict sufficiently or eliminate it entirely, reorganization stops. This might require considerable time, during which the reorganizing person is likely to feel angry, anxious, and/or depressed. RTP is designed to support children who are experiencing reorganization. And through the use of the questioning process, RTP teaches them how to look within themselves, think through the consequences of various possible changes in their reorganizing perceptual systems, and decide how they want to be. (For a more detailed explanation of reorganization, see Freedom From Stress by Ed Ford, Chapter 7, “Reorganization: The Mind’s Repair Kit.”)
I once asked a sixth grader who was punching other students who teased him whether punching was allowed, and he said, “No.” Then I asked, “Does it make things better?” He answered, “No, I keep getting into trouble.” Showing frustration, he added, “But what else can I do?” Using a “chill out” pass to leave conflict-producing situations by going to a protected environment, until he was able to calm down, provided the support he needed for successful reorganization. He began to avoid confrontations and found more peace within himself.
Resolving Conflicts: We all want to be at peace within ourselves, with values and beliefs that are in harmony with each other and are in harmony with the ways we have prioritized them and the standards we have set. We might not be able to articulate the best ways things should be, but we certainly feel conflict when we sense inconsistencies between our beliefs and priorities, and the ways we are currently dealing with our lives. When we are angry, anxious, or depressed, indicating internal conflict, we must ultimately resolve our conflicts at a higher harmonious level in order to restore internal peace. To quote William Powers, “When there is conflict, whether between people or inside oneself, lasting change can take place only if there is stability and harmony at the next higher level.” I have heard him say this many times, but only recently did I really think through the implications.
If my wife, Hester, wants to take a walk somewhere other than where we have been going regularly, and I would rather stay where we regularly walk, I sense the conflict. The conflict is at the Program level. Considering the situation at the Principles level, I say to myself, “Really, Ed, what’s more important, enjoying time with your wife, or where you enjoy it?” To me, the answer is obvious, and so we go where Hester wants. Going up to the Principles level has enabled me to resolve the conflict.
I know of a couple who had very serious problems in their marriage. The wife left and moved to an apartment. The husband stayed home with the children, determined to keep the family going and to work things out. Eventually, the wife returned, and they did work things out. As the husband told me later, for him, divorce was never an option. He had resolved the issue at the Systems Concepts level: “marriage is sacred” was a value he had set at that level.
When I had a family counseling practice, I remember working with a woman whose career frequently took her out of town. She told me she had almost lost everything most important to her-her husband and her children. Her husband, a busy executive, struggled to maintain family life both in the evenings and on the weekends when his wife was absent. One of their sons developed very disruptive behavior at an early age. The way the woman was structuring her life resulted in conflict. But then she reflected at the Principles level and decided that having more time alone with her husband and being a more important part of her children’s lives had much higher priorities than her job. So she took a part-time job working out of her home.
In many cases, single parents greatly desire adult relationships.
When such a relationship develops, the time they spend with their children is reduced. As the parent becomes aware of this and tries to spend more time with the children, the new adult partner experiences a reduction in time with the parent, and conflict arises. The parent can resolve the conflict at the Principles level by examining priorities. Which is really more important to the single parent, spending time with the children or the adult relationship? Attempting to satisfy both areas in the conflict often just makes things worse.
When we work out ways to resolve conflicts, it is critical that our plans be in harmony with our values and priorities. The RTP questioning process provides support for eliminating internal conflicts by teaching people to look within themselves and decide how they ought to be.
We each create the kind of person we want to be, and when we get married, some of us foolishly create expectations for ourselves about the kinds of persons we want those around us to be. But when we try to change others to meet our expectations, they often see our attempts as lacking in respect and very controlling. In serious relationships, such attempts may be seen as a lack of committed love. People are not designed to have their goals set by others, but to set and satisfy their own goals. In all situations in which we find ourselves with others, in order to satisfy our own goals, we must learn to respect the rights of those around us-otherwise we are likely to interfere with the attempts of others to satisfy their own goals.
Quality Time: The real key to building a strong, lasting, and enjoyable relationship between two people is quality time. (See Chapter 6.) This type of interactive time alone together on a daily basis will not only build and maintain confidence in their mutual ability to resolve differences, but, more importantly, it will help raise the level of importance each individual ascribes to the other when reflecting on which priorities are most important. I have found in the many schools in which I have worked that, universally, chronically disruptive students totally lack quality time with anyone. I know of many programs bringing volunteers into schools to spend time with such students that have had remarkable results in helping those students turn their lives around. For the first time, there are others who really care enough to show an interest and spend interactive time with them on a regular basis.
Using RTP on Ourselves: I have been working with work-furlough prisoners at one of our sheriff’s jails. They are at their jobs each weekday and then spend the rest of their days and nights in jail. I teach a class on responsible thinking. The first night of the class, I ask the prisoners individually to list approximately five things that are really important to them. These might include friends, spouse, children, education, sobriety, health, job, God, faith, and so forth. Then I ask them to prioritize the items they have listed. Many of them begin to reflect for the first time in their lives on what is really important to them and whether there are conflicts among the items they have selected.
Often, the following week, prior to class, several of the prisoners tell me that their reflections on priorities have changed their lives. And in my conversations with them after the six- to eight-week class is over, some say this was the most important thing they did in the class.
I now realize that the profound changes many of these inmates went through are similar to the changes many students experience with RTP. And I think that what happens in those students also happens in many administrators and teachers using RTP. They reflect on their situations at a level where there is harmony, and the result is a resolution of their conflicts. Those who take longer to resolve their conflicts apparently either have a hard time establishing priorities or must give up goals that are hard to give up.
It now seems obvious to me that if you want to experience what your student or spouse or child is going through, and what many educators do on their own as a result of using this process when working with students, then the real key to understanding what the use of RTP offers is to use the process on yourself.
Taking this a step further, I now realize that in my 25 years of doing professional counseling, I have had little to do with individuals resolving their own conflicts, other than asking questions that helped them look within themselves and decide how they want to be, and then offering, from my own experience, ways of structuring their lives to satisfy their goals. Also, I believe I helped some of them move up to a level at which they found harmony and could resolve their conflicts. I needed to stay out of their way as they went through this process, allowing them the freedom to work within themselves and not getting in their way by telling them what I thought they needed.
If you want to get an idea of what it is like to “look within yourself and decide if the way you are is the way you want to be,” the first thing to do is to make a list of the things in life that are important to you. Included on such a list might be children, spouse, parents, extended family, close friends, other specific individuals, pets, habits like smoking and drinking, work, hobbies, health, faith, home, certain possessions, etc. Then try arranging the items in order of importance, from highest priority to lowest. Perhaps you might discover that the things you seem to spend the most time doing and the people with whom you spend the most time are rated a lot lower in importance than other things you ignore and people with whom you spend very little time.
If you want less conflict in your life, this is where real change begins. As you begin to look within yourself in this way, you become better equipped to understand where change needs to happen, and then you can restructure your life accordingly. I myself have done this. At times, I have had to “look within myself” and deal with what I needed to change. I sometimes needed to decide whether taking on another task was more important than the time I was giving up with someone important to me. This can have an especially powerful effect on a person whose own life has been in shambles, as I learned from many of the inmates at the jail. This has been an earth-shaking experience for many of them.
It is no easy task to take a long, hard look within yourself, reflect on whether this is really the way you want to be, and make sure that the way you have structured your priorities is bringing you the happiness you want. But only you can look within yourself. No one else can. No one can even make suggestions as to how your priorities should be arranged. Only you can know if how you have created your internal world is reducing or producing internal conflict.
Once done, as many teachers and administrators have found out, this offers a personal understanding of the experience that many students, especially the more chronically disrupting ones, go through.
Educators who have found that their lives profoundly change after having used this process have used the questioning process that they have been using with students on themselves. As they begin to look seriously within themselves, they sense the same transformation in their own lives that they have seen in some of their students. Thus, this experience is not just for disruptive children-it can happen within all of us.
Attempting to Control the Behavior of Others: Trying to control what we hear and see other people say and do is futile. Students must learn efficient ways to deal with internal conflict, just as they must learn how to solve schoolwork problems efficiently. Trying to control them by giving either “rewards” or “punishments” does not teach them how to deal with conflict within themselves. Instead, it acts as a disturbance to their systems, and (to paraphrase B. F. Skinner) they will likely attempt to countercontrol whoever tries to control them. They might even try to make would-be controllers angry or harm them physically. (To learn more about countercontrol, visit www.responsiblethinking.com and read the section entitled “PCT, Reinforcement Theory, Countercontrol, and RTP,” by Tom Bourbon.)
In general, what we see another person do gives us little indication of the various beliefs and standards within that person. A child might scream in bed for “a drink of water,” but that action could have more to do with getting a goodnight hug and kiss. Or a child running down the hall to class might be mainly concerned with getting to class on time, while a teacher is mainly concerned about safety risks. We cannot expect to understand completely others’ experiences and how they are organized at their highest levels.
Consider how you feel when people criticize what they think you are doing, or laugh at what they believe you mean. You understand what you are doing or meaning, based directly on your inner experiences, but others can only guess, based on your actions. So when someone tries to control another person by “rewarding” or “punishing” them, they could easily be completely mistaken about what is “rewarding” or “punishing,” thus creating conflict and chaos. Rather, people should be treated as living control systems designed to resolve their own internal conflicts. And the real reward for disruptive students is internal-the peace they experience and the growing belief and confidence in their own ability to resolve their own conflicts successfully. RTC teachers are often seen by students as the persons who believed in them and their ability to make it.
Becoming More Responsible:
Students who are having problems getting along with their peers will find little peace and satisfaction in their lives unless they learn to resolve their conflicts at the next higher level by creating ways of reaching their goals without being in conflict with others. They must learn to look within themselves and find ways of satisfying their goals while living in harmony with others.
This is what happens when RTP is used properly. It is designed to teach them to be sensitive to differences between the standards of wherever they are and what they are doing. It is also designed to teach them how to get what they want without violating the rights of others, through plan making. This means learning how to structure their lives so they do not act as disturbances to others when they try to get what they want.
They must become aware of the beliefs or values and resulting standards of where they are. All communities have rules, and to live without conflict, these rules must be learned and followed. What is the purpose of rules? To provide standards to be followed by all people who live in the same environment, so that they can achieve their goals and get what they want, while at the same time being minimal disturbances to others. This is what responsibility is all about.
Thus, three things are essential to keep in mind when helping children to become more responsible.
First, any attempt to control students is antagonistic to how they are designed and to their learning to think responsibly.
Second, for a discipline process to be effective, those using it must treat students the same way as those having difficulty in an academic subject: in a non-punitive, non-controlling atmosphere, with understanding, respect, and patience.
Third, students need to be taught to look within themselves and decide how they want to be, and then how to structure ways of achieving their goals. This includes being taught how to make plans that will help them resolve their own conflicts and work with others to resolve mutual differences in ways that do not violate the standards and rules of the environment in which they find themselves.