I'd like to suggest a resolution for 2003 - yield the right-of-way. My proposition is quite general, applicable in many circumstances, and relevant to more than a safety mission. I hope to convince you that this resolution is a SMART goal ("S" for specific, "M" for motivational, "A" for achievable, "R" for relevant, and "T" for trackable).

Behaviors related to "yielding the right-of-way" can be stipulated, and occurrences of these behaviors can be tracked until a specific and achievable quantity is reached. This New Year's Resolution is within everyone's capability to achieve. But why should you do this? And how is this relevant to safety?

These two questions address the "motivation" and "relevant" components of SMART goals. Compelling answers should give this simple resolution a top priority for the New Year. Let's first consider the domain typically viewed as most germane to my proposal - driving.

The leading cause

Several years ago the Transportation Research Center at the University of Michigan conducted a comprehensive analysis of more than 1.8 million crash reports in order to prioritize the various contributing driving behaviors. For more than 79 percent of these reports, only one at-risk behavior was recorded. Indeed, "failure-to-yield" was at the top of the list (accounting for 19.3 percent of the total crashes), followed by speeding (16.9 percent), following-too-close (10.3 percent), driver inattention (6.6 percent), careless driving (5.8 percent), and disregarding a traffic signal (5.0 percent). Alcohol or drugs was mentioned in only 3.2 percent of these crash reports.

Failure-to-yield is still a prominent contributor to vehicle crashes. After all, a driver who yields the right-of-way usually avoids any possible conflict with another vehicle. Also, when you let the aggressive driver through, you'll prevent the frustration and negative emotions that can activate "road rage." In some cases a sense of security is gained by knowing a speedy driver is ahead to attract the attention of a radar check.

Listen first

Yield the right-of-way is consistent with the first rule of effective interpersonal communication. When attempting to change at-risk behavior to safe behavior, listen first with empathy to the wrongdoer's position, even when it sounds like only an excuse. Then ask specific behavior-based questions to learn more. Such yielding can lead to an optimum outcome, as when the offender admits to making a personal mistake and yields for your advice on how to improve.

Don't snap back

The other day the telephone rang and my daughter shouted with hostility, "Someone answer the phone; you live here too, don't you?" Now that kind of negative reaction seems to demand an equally unpleasant reply: "Answer the phone yourself, it's probably for you anyway." But what's the benefit?

Sometimes the best response is no response. Yielding provides an opportunity for speakers to reflect on what they said. And the absence of a negative rejoinder prevents the escalation of negative emotions. In other words, don't fuel a fire.

Yielding is not ignoring

Yielding is easy when it's only about answering a telephone. I merely yelled back a genuine "Sorry," and answered the phone, leaving my daughter to think about her inappropriate assertion. Maybe some guilt would trickle in.

Sure, this yielding stuff sounds good for inconsequential behavior. But what about significant action, such as at-risk behaviors that can result in an injury if continued? Surely you can't yield the right-of-way in this situation. Well, it depends on your definition of "yield."

"Yield" is not the same as ignore. A definition of "yield" in The American Heritage Dictionary is "to give way to what is stronger or better." At-risk behavior is not better or stronger than safe behavior, so there's no reason to yield. But remember my earlier point about first actively listening and asking questions. Realize that "punishment" (defined in my dictionary as "a penalty imposed for wrongdoing") is not the same as "corrective action."

Corrective action is not punishment

Corrective action requires developing a specific refinement plan. This includes designating behaviors to change, as well as the environmental, managerial, and social supports needed to initiate and sustain behavioral improvement. Effective corrective action also requires personal commitment, and this can be stifled severely with an unyielding and seemingly uncaring application of negative consequences.

Bottom line: Yield the right-of-way does not mean ignore at-risk behavior. Ask for an immediate behavior change, but resist giving critical commentary. Instead, listen with genuine caring and ask questions relevant for corrective action.

When you yield to learning the other person's perspective, you maximize the chances of attaining the best outcomes - ownership of the mistake and commitment to improve.

NOTE - Search www.ishn.com using keywords "SMART goals" and read four of Dr. Geller's previous columns about goal-setting. Use keyword "punishment" to find more than a dozen of Dr. Geller's articles on discipline and motivation.

SIDEBAR: Principles of yielding when confronted with at-risk behavior

  • Ask for an immediate behavior change.
  • Resist giving critical commentary.
  • Listen with genuine caring.
  • Ask questions relevant for corrective action.
  • Develop a corrective action plan.
  • Maximize chances to attain the best outcomes - ownership of the mistake and commitment to improve.