J. Stuart Ablon, Ph.D., is the Director of Think:Kids in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His book, Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work, presents a radical new way of thinking about challenging and unwanted behavior that builds empathy, helps others reach their full potential, and actually works.
Changeable is an official Next Big Idea Club Summer Finalist. We asked Ablon to delve into the big ideas behind his recent work, the surprising things he learned during the writing process, and how he hopes people will change challenging behavior as a result.
In two sentences or less, can you sum up the “big idea” of your book?
Changeable presents a radical new way of thinking about challenging behavior: People don’t misbehave because they want to, but because they lack the skills to do better. Skills can be taught, so anyone can change.
What surprised you the most in your research?
Just by shifting your thinking to embrace the notion that skill, not will, determines behavior, you can achieve very dramatic results even in the toughest of situations.
Did an event from your personal life inspire or affect the book?
My first job in high school was in a psychiatric hospital for kids and adolescents. One of my first days there I was asked to help physically restrain a child by holding him down on a concrete floor for 20 minutes against his will, while he screamed, kicked, cried, spat at me and shouted obscenities. I thought: there has to be a better way.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
Have empathy for people who aren’t behaving in ways you would like; it is an issue of skill, not will. Work hard to understand their perspective, and work toward win-win solutions to problems (which is different than simply compromising). You will help them (and yourself!) build skills in the process.
Do you have a favorite quote or motto that guides your life?
We are all doing the best we can to handle what the world is throwing at us with the skills we have.
What is one book that you wish everyone in the world would read?
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
What was your most humbling moment?
At my brother’s wedding when I was 20 years old, I was the best man and had prepared a speech for the reception. When I stood up to deliver it, I was overwhelmed by emotion and couldn’t remember a single word. I blanked out and couldn’t recover. I just stood there while everyone stared at me sympathetically.
What trivial trick, talent, or feat can you do to impress people?
I can make balloon animals—which might not be so trivial after all since they bring immense, albeit temporary, pleasure to kids!
What’s something that is really easy for most people that you find really challenging?
Paying attention to only one thing at a time!