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Don’t Eat The Marshmallow. You’re Better Than That.

by HardTalk™ Team | Perspiration

As we say, loudly and often, none of the behaviours crucial to HardTalk success are inherently difficult – ask for permission, start with the Truths, look for more data, paraphrase etc- these and all of the other HardTalk tools are relatively easy to master. The difficulty comes in mastering them when you’re under pressure which is usually what happens in any kind of difficult conversation or HardTalk scenario.

The key to recalling the correct behaviours in a high pressure situation is training our brain and, in particular, honing our ability to delay gratification.  Think about it, you might want to punch your boss in the face, and it would feel good, but responding calmly means you are more likely to get your way and keep your job!

Sweet Insights

You probably already know about the marshmallow test. In 1972 researchers told a series of children that if they could spend about 15 minutes alone in a room without eating a tempting marshmallow they would be given a reward – an extra marshmallow. As it turns out it wasn’t just an amusing experiment to see how much self-control kids have when faced with confectionary. The kids were tracked over time and it turned out that those who could delay gratification ended up with higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. (You can see the follow up studies here, here, and here.)

We know that willpower and determination are connected to the ability to stay focused on long-term results rather than short-term pleasure – to delay gratification – and we know that the ability to deny ourselves in the short-term has a long-term impact on more than just how many marshmallows we get to eat!

This is important to HardTalk because here, as elsewhere, success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline in the moment to get the results you want in the long run. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.

“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

― Jim Rohn

Can We Change?

So obviously, the main question is can you learn self-discipline? And science increasingly says the answer is yes.  One way we can do it i.e. help people to build their ability to delay gratification is to teach them that it works.

Another group of scientists recently replicated the Marshmallow test but with a difference. Before giving the children a marshmallow and offering to double it if they waited the researchers split them into two groups. The first group was exposed to inconsistency e.g. they were made promises that weren’t fulfilled. The second group, on the other hand, got exactly what they were promised: they were exposed to consistency.

What do you think happened? Perhaps unsurprisingly the children who had been trained to see delayed gratification as a good thing waited an average 4 times longer than the first group.

Organisations and their leaders should be aware of the importance of consistency in driving performance and productivity

And we can use this information for ourselves to mitigate our tendency to avoid speaking up or speaking up in a way that feels good right now even though it’s not in our best interests in the long-run.

When you’re deciding whether or not to have a HardTalk remind yourself of times, in the past, when having a difficult conversation made a positive difference. This will help you focus on what you want in the long-term rather than the avoidance or other unhelpful behaviour that feels good in the moment.

HardTalk scenarios are often complicated. There isn’t a set of rules you can simply follow. It’s about self-awareness and self-control and that’s really Hard.  But it will be worth it in the end.  (Maybe you’ll even get some delicious marshmallows! 😉 )


If you’d like to learn more about mastering the art and science of difficult conversations or HardTalk you can do so here; by signing up for the newsletter or sending us an email. We’d also love to hear your thoughts on this and other topics on LinkedIn or Twitter .

Dawn Metcalfe is an executive coach, facilitator, trainer and leadership advisor. She is also the author of Managing the Matrix (published in both English and Arabic) and HardTalk™. Dawn is the founder of Dubai based PDSi, which helps individuals and teams get even better at what they do, and has worked with business leaders around the world to change the way they see the world, their behaviour and their impact on others.