Merlin Works Newsletter: I Keep Getting The Same Answer

How To Deal With Toddlers, Teammates, and Tough Guys

by Shana Merlin

My 17 month old son woke up at crying (as usual) at about 5:15am (as usual) a few weeks ago. I got him out of his crib, cuddled him a bit until he was awake and calm. And as we were lying there, dreamily embracing, sun still not up he said his first word of the day. “No.”

I don’t know what he was saying “No” to. I don’t think he knew either. It’s just become his favorite word. Something he likes to start the day off with. And of course we went on to have a great day of books, games, and roughhousing, interspersed with saying no to certain foods, to diaper changes, and his favorite, to the kitty.

So I figured it was time to start reading some parenting books. Seems like the terrible twos might be just around the corner. After surveying my friends on Facebook and ditching books that had too many big promises: “End power struggles! 1-2-3 Easy!” I picked up  (and by picked up I mean downloaded) a copy of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I found their humility, experience and honesty appealing, as well as their clear, organized book with lots of examples and cartoons.

As I was reading the book, some things came up that were eerily familiar. For example, in the first chapter, the author shares her notes from a parent group meeting she attended early in her career:

“Direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave.
When kids feel right, they behave right.
How do we help them feel right?
By accepting their feelings!”

This was basically the same content from Dr. Rick’s Kirchner’s The Art of Change, LLC that we have been using in our sales, persuasion, and conflict resolution courses we have been teaching at Dell and other top companies in town. Dr. Rick explains how to deal with an emotional situation through Conflict Aikido:

“As an alternative to the fight or flight response, you can accept the understandable, blend with it (move in the same direction) and then take charge over it, redirecting it towards your desired outcome. While it’s obviously easier said than done, it’s MUCH easier than conflict, both in terms of the energy it takes and the results it produces.”
Both techniques in dealing with strong emotions are very similar to a method we use in improv when someone begins a scene with a big feeling–we support it. Our normal human instinct is to try to reduce emotion somehow because emotions scare us. So if someone starts a scene by sobbing, beginner improvisers might try to:
  • Quell that emotion by fixing things. “There, good as new!”
  • Comforting them. “It’s gonna be okay. Everything’s fine.”
  • Distracting them.  “Look, I got you a present!”
  • Flat out trying to get them to stop emoting. “Don’t cry. Calm down.”

These all sound like techniques we might use as parents with upset children or as team members with an upset co-worker. Faber and Mazlish outline a few more techniques as a first response to an emotion:

  • Denial of Feelings. “You’re probably just tired and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. It’s not that bad”
  • The Philosophical Response. “This is the way the world works and you need to learn how to deal with that.”
  • Giving Advice.”You know what I would do?”
  • Questions. “What exactly happened?
  • Defense of the Other Person. “I can understand the other person being upset. They are under a lot of pressure.”
  • Pity. “Oh you poor thing. How awful. I could cry”
  • Amateur Psychoanalysis. “Have you considered the possibility that this is about something else entirely?”

These responses are all ultimately unsatisfying to the person having that emotion. It often just escalates the original emotion, because people feel like they aren’t being heard or accepted.

The fact is that when someone is having an emotion, and you use any of the techniques above to try to stop that emotion, you are blocking them and denying their reality.  An experienced improviser does this:
  • Accepts the emotion
  • Gives space
  • Reflects back the emotion. “You seem sad.’
  • A master improviser might even justify that emotion. “You’re sad. You loved that dog and he’s not coming back.”

This accepts and heightens the original emotional offer. A true Yes And moment, and often the opposite of our instincts.

This also happens to be the very first technique Faber and Mazlish teach in the book.

“To Help With Feelings

  1. Listen with full attention
  2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word–“Oh” … “Mmm” … “I see.”
  3. Give their feelings a name

So at this point, I’m getting my mind blown. How are all these things the same thing?! Dealing with emotion in preschool, in the board room, and on the stage are utterly similar. Listen, Accept, Reflect. It’s so easy (technically, not emotionally). It’s a lot about doing less, being patient, leaving space.

And I got my first chance to use my new parenting technique this weekend… on my husband. We were at Out of Funds, the fundraiser for the big comedy festivalOut of Bounds  (which and you must all attend,) and there was a puppy up for a live auction. My husband is an animal lover and born caregiver and was feeling strongly that someone needed to adopt this puppy. If no one stepped up, we would have to. Now, my first reaction was to say “No” firmly (where does my son get that?) and followed up with some half-joking threats about sleeping in the doghouse because I feel we already have too many living creatures under our roof. But when he repeated his feelings, even stronger (see how that works?) I decided to use my new tactic. “I know you want that puppy,” I said.

“Look at it. Somebody’s got to take that sweet dog home,” my husband pined

“You want that puppy so bad,” I repeated, searching for something else to say. Then I remembered the fourth step from the How to Deal With Feelings section of the book, “4. Give them their wishes in fantasy”

“I wish we could take that puppy home right now,” I empathized, commenting on it’s sweet demeanor.

And I think that bought us enough time to let the auction play out and have the wonderful guy and Merlin Works Teacher, Kevin Miller, raise his hand and place the winning bid on the dog. Jon and I were both relieved.

At the end of the night, my husband said he never really intended to adopt the dog.

“I know,” I said. “I know.”

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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