A troubled teenager named Bobby was sent to see his high-school counsellor, John Murphy. Bobby had been in trouble so many times that he was in danger of being shipped off to a special facility for kids with behavioral problems.

Most counsellors would have discussed Bobby’s problems with him, but Murphy didn’t.

MURPHY: Bobby, are there classes where you don’t get in trouble?

BOBBY: I don’t get in trouble much in Ms. Smith’s class.

MURPHY: What’s different about Ms. Smith’s class?

Soon Murphy had some concrete answers:

  1. Ms. Smith greeted him at the door.
  2. She checked to make sure he understood his assignments.
  3. She gave him easier work to complete. (His other teachers did none of the three.)

Now Murphy had a roadmap for change. He advised Bobby’s other teachers to try these three techniques. And suddenly, Bobby started behaving better.

We’re wired to focus on what’s not working. But Murphy asked, “What IS working, today, and how can we do more of it?”

You’re probably trying to change things at home or at work. Stop agonizing about what’s not working. Instead, ask yourself: “What’s working well, right now, and how can I do more of it?”

Chip and Dan Heath are the authors of Made to Stick and the soon to-be-released book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.