A story from Taking the War Out of Our Words By Sharon Ellison
(Note: this article is re-printed by permission. Other articles by Sharon Ellison can be found on www.pndc.com, click on LEARNING ROOM, click on “Articles”, click on “By Sharon”)
Corey had ongoing arguments with her daughter, Beth, who resisted doing housework. Beth would tell her mom she didn’t have time to do the dishes, or agree to do them and then not, or get angry and say Corey was unfair and expected too much. In response, Corey, trying to control her tone, would plead through gritted teeth, “I think I have a right to expect some help with the household chores. I can’t work all day and do everything around here too. I’m not being unreasonable, I just want us to cooperate.”
Sometimes Corey would express her frustration more aggressively, saying “I don’t think it is too much to ask for some help doing the dishes when I work all day and buy the groceries and fix the meals! “.
While Corey had a legitimate need for her daughter to do more of the housework, her intention when she threatened – “I won’t buy your prom dress if you don’t shape up and help around here! – was to make Beth feel insecure and frighten her into helping.”
[Corey often gave in even after making threats]
As Corey began to practice non-defensive communication, she sat down with Beth when she was not seeking Beth’s help and asked her some genuine questions.
“Do you believe I should do all the housework?”
“When you say I am being unfair to ask you to help, do you say it because you are angry or because you think you should not have to help at all?”
“Do you have any desire to help me around the house?”
Previously, any question Corey had asked Beth had been designed to coerce Beth into helping. In response to genuine questions, Beth – underneath her defensiveness – showed more concern and desire to share the work than Corey would have ever imagined. While it was still an uphill trek, this conversation laid the groundwork for some significant changes in how they resolved issues around housework . . .
Corey had been a permissive parent until she began making consistent predictions. She made it clear that if Beth did not do her homework and her chores with a respectful attitude, she would not give her permission to attend certain activities with her friends . . .
Rather than arguing with Beth, Corey [said] to her, “It seems that you believe I am unfair for asking you to do the dishes tonight. What I have noticed is that you say I am unfair each time I ask you to help with housework.” . . .
The first time Corey told her daughter she would not drive her to a slumber party if she continued to speak to her in a demanding, rude, tone, Beth threw a royal fit, even though she could easily ride with a friend who lived nearby.
As Corey began to make predictions that emphasized reciprocity, she consistently refused to give Beth permission to go out with her friends until her jobs and homework were done. “If you don’t finish the dishes by seven, then you may not leave for the party until you finish them.”
As Corey effectively carried out the consequences she had predicted, Beth’s behavior and attitude improved at home, as did her grades at school. Corey had also been worried that Beth was starting to drink too much. That too, tapered off. The effect of a few consistent predictions at home began to have a wide-reaching effects in how competently Beth managed her life.
As parents we often defend or justify our own legitimate need to get cooperation from our children and teens, which is what Corey does in the beginning of this story. In addition, she tries to get cooperation without setting effective limits, and then when over her edge with frustration she makes threats that she won’t keep, like not buying the prom dress. This shifting back and forth from attempts to get cooperation through what really boils down to pleading with a child to frustrated threats is common among parents who are trying to create a cooperative family life without being punitive. Unfortunately, it fosters uncooperative, complaining, and blaming behaviors in children, damaging their ability to become competent and respectful.
When Corey began to practice non-defensive communication, she never tried to control Beth’s choices, she simply asked genuine questions to ask Beth to think about what her attitudes and opinions really were about wanting to help her mother, gave her feedback about noticing that Beth accused her of being unfair each time she was asked to contribute, and setting clear boundaries that attached Beth’s privileges to how much responsibility she took.
Never in this process did she coerce, lecture, or threaten. It allowed Beth to think about her own behavior without being locked into power struggle. When Corey made a limit setting prediction, she followed through each time, but used predictions that were as small as possible. For example instead of telling Beth she couldn’t go to the party if she didn’t get the dishes done by seven, she told her, She couldn’t go to the party “until” they were done. Instead of taking away the whole party, she only refused permission for as many minutes as it took Beth to finish. This was much more motivating and empowering for Beth and diffused the likelihood of a more intense power struggle.
The change in Beth’s drinking habits are a bonus that often comes when clear boundaries create an environment in which a child or teen becomes more competent and reciprocal.
A Note from Sharon: In my book, I follow many of the examples throughout the book, so you, as the reader, can see the progress in a particular issue from the beginning, defensive interactions through shifting to non-defensive solutions. In this story I have included some portions from 18 different pages of my book.
Because I always find it frustrating when I can’t find an example I want to return to in a book, I created an Index of Examples in my book, which shows every topic/story in the book and each pages it appears on, including examples in various categories of relationship, such as couples, parents, and professionals.
Sharon Ellison, M.S. is the author of Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. Ellison Communication Consultants is based in Oakland, CA. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org © 2002