If you want to change, aim for a plastic stretch , not an elastic one


For some time now, I have been playing with the idea of a plastic stretch in our way to behave. This is the kind of concept you get when like me, you are an engineer who turned into a coach…

For those who are not familiar with it, here is the difference from a mechanical perspective of an elastic deformation and a plastic deformation:

  • The elastic deformation is a reversible one: If you apply a stress on a material, it will deform. When you release the stress, the material will go back to its initial state (like an elastic).
  • The plastic deformation is an irreversible one which needs a higher stress to reach. In this case, when you release the stress, the material will go back to an intermediate state with a permanent residual deformation (like a chewing gum).

When we want to make durable changes in our way of doing or being, we need to reach this plastic zone and sometime we have to go extreme to make sure we reach it. Otherwise, if we stay in the elastic zone, we might just change for while but when our motivation decreases or our old habits come back, then we go back to that initial state without any residual benefit.

A personal story

At the end of the school year, one of my sons was having a hard time staying quiet in class, for different reasons (lot of energy, picking things quickly etc…) and he was often bursting out as soon as a question was asked to answer it, which was disturbing the whole class. After discussing with the teacher, I thought about what we could do to help him and it was clear that just telling him to try and not answer so often or so energetically wouldn’t work. So, I tried this plastic stretch idea.

I discussed with him his way to react and made sure he understood and was willing to try and change it.

Then I asked him if he was up for a challenge (Note 1: asking permission to really have him on board.  Note 2: making it like a game or even a challenge often helps and I know my son likes challenges).

I challenged him to not answer ANY question the next day, no matter what. I also said he could explain this challenge to the teacher if it made him more comfortable. That seemed really hard for him, he had to think and convince himself that he wanted to play. Then he said yes.

Note: we also dug into:

  • What made him want to answer so strongly? He said he wanted his teacher to know that he knew the answer, so I assured him that she knew, no matter if he answered the questions or not, which helped him with this (Note N3 changing a habit is hard so trying to understand what exactly is preventing us from changing is key)
  • What he could do to help himself on his challenge. He came with putting his hands under his butt, which I found was a great idea (Note N4: asking the other person to come with their own solution is really powerful and is key in coaching).

Although it was hard, he succeeded, we celebrated (“yeah, you didn’t answer any of the teacher’s questions, congratulations!”) and we decided to continue the next days. He also succeeded the 2nd day and on the 3rd day, he couldn’t help answering a few times. That’s being plastic and not elastic (he didn’t go back to his bursting moments all along the day but just to answering some questions). After checking if he was still up for the challenge, he then succeeded in not answering for the next couple of days and then we decided to stop playing this challenge but to keep the awareness and automatisms developed so he could then answer in a more self-aware and less extreme way, which the teacher confirmed later (Note: It was the end of the year so we’ll see how he does next year 😊).

How does that apply to you?

If you are a manager and want to improve your listening, take on the challenge to spend a whole meeting, or day or week, by only asking questions (not allowed to give your opinion, justify yourself or give arguments about why you think it should be another way).

If you want to develop your capacity to say NO, spend a week saying NO to everything (you can explain your challenge is that makes it easier).

If you hate asking for some help, spend a week asking for help for anything, even when you don’t need.

If you are afraid of asking for referrals in your business, ask all the persons you are going to meet this month for some referrals, without being attached to get some, just to practice.

The point is not to sustain that “extreme” behavior forever, but to train your muscle to DO things differently or to BE different. And by aiming at a plastic stretch, you won’t go back to your initial way of behaving, you will keep some residual impacts forever.

Finale notes:

  • To go extreme doesn’t mean the change has to be big. It’s the way you apply it that has to be extremely different.
  • Commitment is key. If you want to play this game, you have to commit to play full out from the start.
  • Understand what might get in the way for you to change and come with some strategy to help you make those changes (like my son’s putting his hands under his butt)
  • Just as the elastic and plastic behaviors of the materials depend on the characteristics of the material, everyone will have a different experience with this depending on their personality.
  • My former colleagues will remind me that if you increase the stress too high and go beyond the plastic zone, you will reach the rupture, so please don’t go there.

Now is your turn to play: What plastic stretch do you want to challenge yourself with?

If you want to discuss about it, or need an accountability partner, just reach out to me.

Take care,

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