Change Your Step to Change the Dance
“But I know that already.” Once upon a time, I repeatedly heard those words out of my precious little whippersnapper. The situations changed. Yet, the response stayed the same; “But I know that already.”
You can imagine that after several months of the same dance, I either wanted to rip my hair out, or ….
Finally, one day, I came dangerously close to uttering the dreaded words, “How many times do I have to tell you?” That’s when I stopped and said to myself, “Doctor Dorfman, you’re the psychologist. You figure out what’s going on!”
To my chagrin, I realized, in fact, I was not following principles of communication that I taught others. It was I who was initiating the same tired dance. I was stating my desires in the negative rather than the positive. My son absolutely was correct. He already knew what I was telling him. I persisted in telling him what not to do – Don’t put the wet towel on the bed. Don’t leave your coat on the floor and on and on. He simply was following my lead. Apparently, I was frustrating him as much as I was frustrated.
No one knows how to N-O-T. What I was doing was I was telling him what not to do instead of the behavior I did want. I was not giving him an alternative or pointing out the behavior I did want.
Communication is best when it is:
(2) specific, and
(3) stated in the affirmative rather than the negative.
This is one of those miracle outcome stories. Trust me; I do not have a bevy of such stories. The ending to this story is that, when I changed how I was addressing my son, I never again had to hear the vexing words, “But I know that already.”
Wet towels now were hung in the bathroom. Coats were on hangers in the closet. Dirty clothes were deposited in the hamper rather than on the floor after undressing. Upon returning home from school, the school bag made it to the designated spot next to the desk rather than dropped inside the front door. Sneakers found their place in the bedroom closet at bedtime rather than abandoned under the living room coffee table or in front of the game station. Empty glasses were put in the sink instead of left on any available flat surface.
We developed a chore system as well:
Each chore was written on one side of a 3 X 5 file card. On the reverse side was a description of how the chore needed to be completed. One chore was “empty the dishwasher, ” which was (1) direct and (3) affirmative, but not specific. The reverses side explained the (2) specifics, “Take each dish from the dishwasher and place it in the cabinet in its designated place. Take each piece of silverware from the dishwasher and place it in the silverware drawer in its designated slot.” The days and time line for completion of the chore also were specified. We rehearsed emptying the dishwasher prior to allowing my son autonomy for emptying the dishwasher.
There is a moral to this story: In interaction, we only have control over our own behavior. We cannot control others or even manipulate them into doing what we want. Alternatively, we can change what we are doing to give the other something different to which to respond. In so doing, we can achieve a different outcome. Change your step and you change the dance.