If you are a parent, have a significant other, or are a therapist for children and/or adolescents, this is for you…
“You can’t get anyone to do anything they don’t want to do!” I recently heard myself say in a class I am attending. Actually, I barely noticed what I said, until it was repeated back to me by classmate, David Medeiros, LCSW, (trying to imitate my Southern/Texas accent), and then by another, Peter Rossi, LMFT, and I realized that the short exclamation carries an important truth that needs to be heard.
I admit, it’s a little bit of a trigger of mine. As a therapist of small children, pre-adolescents and adolescents, couples, and other adults, I am presented with the belief that one person can “get someone to do something” often. Whether it’s through bribing (“you can have ____ if you do ____”), cajoling (“Pleeease, pretty pleease, it will make me soooo happy if you do), convincing (“Really – here are all the reasons why this is a good thing for you to do…”), guilting (“I am going to suffer in some way if you don’t” or “you will be a horrible person if you don’t”), lashing out (“This is the 8th time I’ve said blahblahblahand now you’re gonna get it!”) or even conniving (aka tricking someone into doing what we want), we often truly believe that we can get people to do what we want them to do.
So let me ask you…when is the last time your small child, or adolescent, when faced with something he or she did not want to do, reacted peacefully to any of the above methods?
For therapists, when is the last time you “got” a kid to talk to you, when your office was the last place he wanted to be?
When is the last time your husband, wife, partner, significant other took kindly to your methods of getting him or her to do what you wanted?
I would argue that even if there is an immediate payoff (as in the person does what you want her to do), the next time you have a request, the stakes become higher, and you have to pull out the stops to “get” the same level of cooperation…or, more accurately, acquiescence. Or resentment starts to build that interferes in other areas of life and relationship.
The thing is, believing that we can get someone to do something communicates a lack of trust and respect in that person’s ability to choose for herself. When we do that we are taking the power of choice away – or at least the acknowledgement of it. Even a two year old has personal power, just beginning to test that out with a steady stream of “no’s”. Especially in relationships where there is an inherent power differential (adults and children, therapists and clients), this is an especially sensitive area.
When we bribe, cajole, guilt, convince, lash out, or connive to achieve compliance from someone, we are communicating that we don’t respect the power that person has over her own choices. Very often this lands us in a Power Struggle. Because, it seems, as humans, we have super sensitive radar to detect when another is trying to limit our personal power. (I know that dogs and horses have this sensitivity – maybe other mammals do too!) And we have a variety of ways of attempting to maintain our power. (That feels like another blog post to me…).
Note: when I use the word “power” I am referring to the power we have over ourselves. I am not referring to taking power away from others or attempting to have power over others.
Please don’t hear any of this as criticism. I have certainly found myself embroiled in many a power struggle with a significant other, child, or adolescent in my adult life. I understand that whatever works to get your 4 year old out the door and to school on time, as long as nobody gets hurt, is all that can be expected some days. Or that there is a really important issue that needs attention in your relationship with a partner, and you feel like you need to make that happen. And that we haven’t learned other ways of communicating with each other – so what else would we do? I’m just wanting to bring to the light this very common way of operating, and the trouble that it can run us into.
The good news is that there are so many other ways to interact with the people that we love, or need to communicate with, that often can result in actual cooperation, not resentful surrender of will (or even manhandling!) Of course, we use different actions and words depending on relationships and age. But the principles are the same:
1) When communicating a request, a desire, directive, or boundary, do so clearly. “I want…, I need…, Will you please…,etc), after having the attention of the other.
2) If there is resistance, respect that the other person has the freedom to deny, ignore, or comply with your request or directive. Acknowledge that this person, even if it is a child, gets to decide how she will respond to what you ask.
3) When directives are given to a child that are in the interest of caring for that child properly and safely, (including establishing age-appropriate boundaries and responsibilities) communicate the probable consequences of not doing what was asked, as well as the boundaries that are non-negotiable. (I can give more details another time about age appropriate ways to go about this…)
4) When requests are made of partners (generally it is best to avoid directives when interacting in an adult-to-adult relationship!), it may be necessary to express feelings or set boundaries related to the request, all the while respecting that the other person has to make a choice based on his own inner landscape about how to respond. Partners have a way of opening up really vulnerable places within us, especially when they choose not to do what we ask…so it might be a good opportunity for some introspection. This is how we learn what needs healing within us!
5) For therapists?? It is of utmost importance that we respect all of our clients, and maybe most especially the younger ones, to use their voices when and how each of them feels comfortable; to go with the “resistance,” not judging it as such, but acknowledging it as a way one might feel safe and empowered. If our young clients choose to share themselves with us, through words, play, or presence, that is a gift given to us, not something that we have made happen.
6) We Can’t Always Get What We Want!! And we can handle the disappointment that comes with not getting what we want.
We can’t get anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. But we can create an environment of respect and empowerment by our actions, energy, and words that invites openness and cooperation from those with whom we desire to interact. We can set the stage, especially with children, to teach how to make decisions, have a voice, disagree respectfully, and handle disappointment, sadness and anger when things don’t go our way. It seems like these are lessons that are sorely needed in our families, in our nation, and around the world, particularly at this time!
Here’s to going forward in Respect, Love and Empowerment!!