Reality Check: Wit’s end?

Are you ever at your “wit’s end?” You try everything you can think of to respond to a problem (usually a person-related problem), but nothing works to create the result you want.

Interactions with others are sometimes delightful, other times frustrating. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we had a few simple principles to guide our actions?

A tribute to Dr. Wm. Glasser that appeared in the International Journal of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy in 2013 tells this story: A woman begged Dr. Glasser for advice on how to deal with her 3 year old son. Dr. Glasser gave her these two suggestions:

  • Always treat him as if he is good.
  • Set up circumstances where he can only succeed.

Does that sound too simple? Let’s analyze it. What’s the alternative to “always treat him as if he is good”? That would be, treat him as if he is bad. Which will be more effective in getting what you want (to learn good behaviour)?

For example, little Billy acts up and spills his milk. You could respond as if you expect him to behave badly. “You are such a little terror; you always act up; I can’t turn my back on you for a minute, blah, blah…”

What does little Billy hear? “I’m a bad kid, and that what’s expected of me. That must mean that I can’t help it; it’s who I am.”

On the other hand, you could treat little Billy as if he is essentially good, that this bad act was an anomaly. It doesn’t define who he is. “Billy, let’s you and I clean up the spilled milk so we can have breakfast. Then you can decide which of these two cereals you would rather have.”

Which response is more effective?

Each of us controls our own behaviour; however, the information we receive does have an influence on what we choose to do. If you only ever use your influence (verbally or implied by your actions) to convince Billy that he’s bad, will that ever help him to come to his 3-year-old senses and realize that he needs to change his behaviour?

What about “setting up circumstances where he can only succeed”? Offering a choice of cereals says to Billy, “Your choice matters.”  No matter which cereal he chooses, he succeeds. Tiny victories provide an opportunity for Billy to learn that he is capable of making successful choices.

The shared clean-up is important, too. Sure, it’s easier and faster to clean it up yourself. However, the message is, ”Your contribution to the effort matters. You are a part of the family, and you share in the responsibility for what happens.” I’m not suggesting you use those words with your 3-year old! It’s your action that sends the message to little Billy.

Are those suggestions only useful with small children? If you are at your wit’s end with someone’s behaviour, try an experiment. Use these two suggestions in your next interaction. The other person may find it puzzling initially; however, it could be a first tiny step toward a new type of relationship.

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