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Potential Maximisation: Attributes of Control

Numerous individuals who are deaf have integrated successfully into mainstream society. They use skills that are learned and mastered through an internal locus (or origin) of control.

Julian Rotter (1966) theorised that people with high self-esteem have a strong internal locus of control. They create their own destiny and strive to turn adversity into rewarding experiences. Using their personal strengths, they purposefully develop numerous social skills in many situations and they are typically empowered by feelings of self-worth and connection with many different people.

People with low-self esteem, however, tend to have an external locus of control. They have an unhealthy dependence on outside sources for self-worth. They are also likely to view their fate as determined by other people, external events, or a biological feature (e.g., deafness). Their thoughts can include excuses such as "If only I were beautiful" and "I must have a partner to be whole". These people commonly feel powerless and lonely.

Waiting for others to create change, to bring good fortune, means you are depending on pure luck. Controlling your own destiny is neither accidental nor lucky; it's deliberately practiced.

In the 1980s, Robert Sternberg (1985; 1988) became famous in academic circles for his research on "Tacit Knowledge." This is the use of emotional intelligence and social tactics in everyday communication. No one is born with tacit knowledge : it's learned through practice. My doctoral findings show that successful individuals living with deafness practice two types of tacit knowledge  (Jacobs, 2009). First, tacit knowledge  that hearing people use (e.g., asserting oneself without aggression). Second, tacit knowledge related to deafness-specific challenges (e.g., learning and using conversational topics from watching TV shows). Tacit knowledge is a key aspect of Control.

Exercising Internal Locus of Control 

Here's a simple technique that explains how tacit knowledge can be learned through internal locus of control. Draw a line down a page and title one list "Cannot Control" and the other "Can Control."  Fifteen-year-old Ellen will be our example. She is intelligent, but her grades are poor. "I'm not cool," she tells her mother. "I'm depressed because of my deafness. I'm fat and I've never had a boyfriend." She also struggles to initiate conversations and fears rejection.

Here are Ellen's lists:

Cannot Control Can Control
  • Deafness
  • Having a boyfriend
  • Lack of beauty
  • Being liked by certain girls
  • Hearing conversations with ease
  • Negative attitudes about deafness
  • Do more physical activity
  • Eat healthier food
  • Discover what TV shows and music her classmates enjoy
  • Ask someone who enjoys music to share popular artists and genres
  • Watch TV or movies to see how people use humour to help with conversational skills
  • Educate others about deafness


Focusing too much on the "Cannot Control" issues may explain why Ellen feels powerless, victimized and overwhelmed. We should not completely ignore the "Cannot Control" issues. They are real and should be acknowledged. As a strategy, however, our thought map helps to give Ellen "ownership" of her circumstances. She can visually see what she can and cannot control.

Ideas in the "Can Control" column can be realistically achieved through action. Action requires taking calculated risks. A student with low confidence can therefore become a skilled risk-taker by mastering small first steps. The following three action stages show how parents can help their children gradually improve control of their lives:

  • First, encourage risks that will not damage self-esteem. Ellen's parents could suggest that she regular cycle/walk and eat low-fat meals. These are risks for someone whose comfort zone is inactivity with a fat-filled diet. Regular activity and eating a healthy diet have numerous rewards: weight loss, physical well-being, increased concentration, etc. Internal locus of control is also strengthened because the actions/risks create rewards.
  •  Second, these feelings of mastery can be built on for other activities. Encourage a gradual increase in risk-taking. You could challenge your child to write an essay or give a presentation about their deafness. In Ellen's case, self-disclosure may be daunting. But self-disclosure, a risk in itself, is a wonderful form of self-expression and self-control. An essay and/or a presentation can create advocacy skills. The classroom will also gain an awareness of deafness.
  • Finally, discover what TV shows, movies or music your child's classmates enjoy. This knowledge will provide your child with conversational topics aplenty (e.g., "Did you hear Jerry's joke on last night's show?" or "What do you think of Coldplay's latest album?") Using this knowledge is the secret to contributing and listening in conversation.

These stages of risk-taking require preparation, application, patience and resilience - both yours and your child's. When life challenges become difficult, a child may blame external sources for their problems (e.g., "Hearing people have it easy"). Yes, being deaf is challenging. But, we learn what tactics work and which tactics do not through risk and resilience. Failures are merely feedback to do better, or to try different tactics at another time.

It is important not to be overprotective. Overprotective parents can prevent adolescents who are deaf from learning, practicing and mastering tactics required in adulthood. Whether deaf or hearing, learned tactics also help transform a child into an adult. Tacit knowledge increases internal locus of control and reduces the chances of external locus of control. Professional and social success is also dependent on the development and use of tacit knowledge.

My last column asked you to read a deafness-related autobiography. Paying attention to social and professional issues will provide you knowledge of the life skills the author used to maximise his or her potential. Some of these tactics will be used by everybody and other tactics will be specific to deafness-related social challenges. Your child, too, can put these tactics into action. And learn from them. Remember: this tacit knowledge will last a lifetime - it is never lost.

Control is the first of eight themes that create "Potential Maximisation". Below is a practical exercise that exemplifies Control.


Talk with your child. Together, draw lists of what they cannot and can control. Create action plans and follow them through. 

The following question prepares you for the next column's theme of Desire.


What are your child's passions and interests? (Do not to confuse this with the passions and interests of yours or others).

"No one has written your destiny for you...Your destiny is in your hands and don't you forget that. That's what we have to teach all our children. No excuses! No excuses!" Barack Obama, President of the United States, July 2009.

Next: Attributes of Desire


  • Jacobs, P.G. (2009). The psychosocial attributes and tactics of vocationally and socially successful who are deaf: A Pragmatist study. Doctorate dissertation. University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Rotter, J.B. (1966).  Generalised expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcements.  Psychological Monographs, 18 (609). 
  • Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The triarchic mind: A new theory of human intelligence. New York: Viking.


The contents of these columns are copyright of Dr. Paul Jacobs (PhD). All rights reserved. Reproduction of all or any substantial part of the contents in any form is prohibited. No part of Dr Paul Jacobs' material on Potential Maximisation may be distributed or copied for any commercial purpose without expressed approval by the author.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this website is not intended as a substitute for independent professional advice.

11-Jun-2021 4:34 PM (AEST)