Lessons from a Four-Year-Old

By J. P. Reynolds

Clare came to me last month for coaching. In her late twenties, she owns a sportswear design firm. She’s accomplished much, yet doubts herself. That’s why she hired Madge as her assistant. Madge has been in the biz thirty years and knows all the players.

Madge told Clare to her face that she thinks she’s inexperienced and privileged. She jabs at Clare’s insecurities with surgical precision. Clare, though, is afraid to upset Madge — what if she quits, then what?

Whenever Clare has tried to speak with Madge about their working relationship, Madge inevitably bursts into tears. Clare caves in.

Madge reminds me of my niece Gracie when she was four-years-old. Gracie knew how to flash her cute smile so as to get what she wanted. One particular time I babysat her, Gracie asked me for ice cream. Her mother had given me strict orders — no sweets — and so I said “no.”

Gracie burst into tears that looked a tad “rehearsed!” She wouldn’t stop, blackmailing me with, “if you loved me….”

Her crying was killing me. And so, I lifted her up, carried her out to the porch and gently put her down. With a big smile and gentle tone, I said, “Gracie, I love you, but your crying is driving me bonkers. I’m going to let you cry out here and when you’re done, just come back inside. OK?”

I went back into the house and within moments Gracie ran inside laughing and wanting to watch a video. Not a peep about ice cream.

What happened? I did something she wasn’t expecting. I changed the dance step.

Clare needed to treat Madge like a four-year-old. I urged her to say something along these lines when Madge next cried: “Madge, clearly you’re upset. I know you want what’s best for the company and me, as I do for you. This conversation is important to both of us, so why don’t you take some time to compose yourself and we can talk later.”

When Clare tried out this script, Madge resisted. Clare repeated the script three times before Madge stopped crying. Later that same day they had a conversation without the special effects of tears.

Is everything “fine” with Clare and Madge? No. However, they’re now having conversations they didn’t have before. Madge is learning that her old ploys no longer work.

The truth is we train people how to treat us. Knowingly and unknowingly, we give people permission to treat us in certain ways. Over time those ways become a routine. If we don’t like the way a person is treating us, then it’s our responsibility to “re-train” them.

Is there someone in your life who needs retraining?

Please send your communication questions to me at: jp@jpr-communications.com.

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