Lately life has been somewhat tempestuous at home.  Emma’s 4-1/2-year-old priorities conflict with Max’s 2-1/2-year-old priorities — add two work-a-holic parents and their own stresses, and voila, you have a powder keg. Recently it got to the point I was looking forward to travelling so I could have a few days of peace.  I take that as a bad sign.

The last few days gave me new insight into my job as a parent — and equally essential lessons as a consultant and manager.  Most managers tell me their biggest struggles are managing conflicts and relationships — so perhaps this story about managing the conflicts at home will provide ideas even to those without kids.

Last week I had time with Karen McCown, Six Seconds’ Chairman and Founder.  We talk frequently about my little family and about her grandchildren.  As many EQ Reflections readers have told me, grandparent-hood sounds like the best of parenting: all the love, none of the “hot buttons.” The next day I happened to talk to a colleague and the psychotherapist sitting next to her.  I talked a bit about my struggles at home, and I was struck by the dramatic difference between the therapist’s approach and Karen’s.

The therapist said, “It sounds like you are letting you kids run things in your house, and you can’t do that.”

Somewhat testy, I said, “Actually, I can do it — but I agree it might not be a good idea.”

“You need to be clear about who’s in charge,” she went on, ignoring my frail jibe, “and consistently reward the appropriate behavior and have consequences for the inappropriate behavior.  You have to be more consistent.”

Not bad advice for a cocktail party.  Then I considered Karen’s advice from the evening before and how different it was.

First Karen asked me what is happening — what’s the pattern.  I explained that a conflict escalated, Emma’s behavior got explosive, and I sent her to time out or her room.

“Is that working?” asked Karen.

“Not really.”

“So you probably don’t want to keep doing it, do you?”  Under Karen’s clear gaze, there was only one available answer.  I shook my head.  “Do you and Emma talk about what happened?”

“Emma would rather not,” I say starting to feel a bit pathetic — how did I give a four-year-old so much power?

After a few more minutes, Karen summarized our discussion into this experiment:  “Why don’t you try this:  Next time you send Emma to her room, say, ‘When you are ready to talk about what happened, come get me.’  Then, discuss what happened and make an agreement about what Emma and you will do differently next time.  Write it down where Emma can see it.”

Before I tell you what happened, what’s the difference between Karen’s advice and the unknown therapist’s?  Notice who had the power or “right” in the adult-to-adult conversations.  Notice how each approach changes the power dynamic between Emma and me — one actually escalates the power struggle, the other side-steps it.

My sense is that Karen’s advice also focuses on the long term vs. short term — Emma needs to make decisions for herself, and eventually these will be fairly serious decisions.  What am I doing now to equip her for that challenge?

This weekend when one of the “inevitable” conflicts occurred, I had a surprising experience.  While I was caught up in the conflict, I did not feel the need to explode — I didn’t feel hopeless.  This is the power of having a new strategy.

I asked Emma if she wanted to talk about what happened, when she grouched, “NO,” I followed Karen’s advice.  A few minutes later, Emma was ready to talk.  I began my Self-Science process and asked, “What happened?”

I discovered that looking at the whole event was too complex, that Emma really had trouble telling the story.  So I began telling what I thought happened, and after each little piece, I asked if she agreed — really asked, not to get agreement but to get her view.  We agreed on some parts, not others, and didn’t debate it — we both identified the story from our sides.

Then I identified the part that was upsetting for me:  “I felt ignored when I told you to stop grabbing your brother for the second time and it did not seem like you listened.  Were you listening?”

“No,” said Emma, and I could see the realization sink in.

We put up a chart paper in her room and I asked what I should write.  Emma said, “No Ignoring.”

I was surprised again when the next day there was a minor tussle between Emma and Max.  When I asked what happened, Emma told me, and said we need to go write on the list.

I suspect that a large part of my own reactivity with the kids comes from feeling so powerless — from feeling like this won’t end, and I can’t stop it.  So the lesson for me as a parent:

  • keep practicing optimism (it WON’T last forever and I CAN make a difference if I try).
  • keep experimenting with new ways of communicating.
  • to stay out of the power struggle — make my job be “help them learn” rather than “enforce.”

Reflecting on the two different styles of giving me advice, I see three key points to remember an “expert,” consultant, and manager supporting others.

Ask, help them see the story, the pattern.

Challenge the “insane” (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results)

Offer questions, alternatives, and experiments rather than answers.

I need to remember I don’t have the answers to my own challenges, let alone yours!  Perhaps the best we can offer one another is a compassionate ear and the encouragement to keep learning.  It’s probably harder to sell than “the answer,” but I suspect there’s a lot more value in it.

Warmly yours,

– Josh

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Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
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