I have a little confession.
As a psychologist, I don’t always enjoy reading the work of other psychologists. The standard formula is often taking an idea, outlining it in the first chapter, and then just kind of repeating that idea for the next 400 pages or so. Plus there’s too much jargon. I know the jargon and don’t even use the jargon. Our clients rarely care too much about that stuff.
There have however been some wonderful books written about psychology by journalists that have shed some light on why we do what we do. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell was one of these books. In this book, he explored a theory of crime and urban decay called “fixing broken windows.’ A summary:
“If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street, sending a signal that anything goes.”
In other words, when you let the little things go, the bigger things can soon pile up as a result. The creators of the theory demonstrated the idea in a number of cities and found it almost always held up.
Beyond economics and crime, I think there is perhaps also an application for those of us managing the problems in our day to day lives.
When we ignore the little things long enough, they often become big things.
There are many examples of these broken windows in our lives. Maybe we’re feeling disrespected or unappreciated at work and have begun calling in sick more often and slacking off. Perhaps it’s been a few weeks since we’ve been intimate with our partners when we once had a healthy and active sexual life together. Maybe we notice our once happy-go-lucky child is all of a sudden distant and avoidant.
It’s easy to ignore broken windows at first. Maybe we simply tell ourselves things will go back to normal soon enough. Or that it’s just a blip. Or perhaps not worth the trouble of talking about.
But as I’ve learned the hard way in my own life, broken windows become very messy houses if we leave them long enough. Unreturned phone calls become estranged relationships. An irritating work situation becomes full on insubordination. Failing to discuss relationship disagreements becomes going to bed a little later and almost a complete lack of affection.
We can address these broken windows by learning to embrace assertive communication. As we see from the graphic above, all of the other three primary modes of communication end with someone losing. When we are passive, we sacrifice our own needs. When we are aggressive, we neglect someone else’s needs. And perhaps the most irritating of them all is passive-aggressive communication, where we are clearly bothered by something and punish both ourselves and others rather than actually talking about it.
Assertive behavior is not always easy. When our emotions get involved, it’s really easy to either heat up or shut down. Assertive behavior requires us to manage these emotional surges and ask, “what problem are we actually trying to solve here?” Even the best of us (I’m not one) get it wrong. Get it wrong a lot.
Broken windows also occur all the time with our physical health. Maybe we’re not sleeping nearly as well as we used to, but chalk it up to a bad run rather than exploring the root of the problem. Perhaps we’re experiencing pain somewhere in our bodies but ignore it rather than go to the doctor and potentially hear some bad news (men are notorious for this.)
Both physical and emotional pain usually starts with a broken window. A warning sign. A little red flag letting us know that something is not quite right.
This is, in fact, one of the primary purposes of pain. To open a window and let us know that something needs checking out.
In 2018, I have resolved to start fixing a number of my own broken windows. I emailed someone I was at odds with, made an appointment with a doctor, and took my car into the shop. In all three cases, I actually felt tremendous relief when I got up and fixed those windows.
Give some thought to the broken windows in your life. I bet you can find a few that need a little attention.
We've all got a few.
We've all got a few.