Turning Conflict Into Cooperation

Mike stood in the kitchen doorway and held up the detention notice from school.  I could tell from the set of his jaw that he expected the worst. I pushed down all the standard phrases that immediately came to mind: You know better! I can’t believe you did this! What were you thinking!

I made eye contact and said, “Tough day, huh?”

He looked surprised, then replied, “Yeah—I guess you could say that.”

“What happened?” I asked.  We sat down at the table and I listened without interrupting as he laid out the situation.  At the end, I asked, “What do you think you should do?” He paused for a moment, then told me what his plan of action was going to be.

Now in case you’re thinking I’m some kind of super parenting expert, I’m not.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way over the years of living with a strong-willed son. And sometimes the education I’ve gotten in the parenting trenches have been even more valuable than my formal education and research.

The first relationship changer was the discovery that every child, especially during the most formative years, has three communication needs: (and this is not original with me)

  1. To be listened to
  2. To be understood
  3. To be taken seriously

Our children are studying from the moment they are born, and as a parent you’re their first and most important teacher.  They’re figuring out how life works—first from observation, then through trial and error.

“A lot of people think that strong will means rebellious and obnoxious. That’s not strong willed. That’s strong will gone sideways. ”

Listen to Cynthia in this 2 minute video

Parents, grandparents, and anyone who works with kids face common challenges as they help children navigate their way to changing the world in uncommon ways. After almost 33 years of researching, teaching and working with thousands of other parents and educators, I’ve learned a lot about effective ways to communicate with kids.  Here are just three of them:

How You Communicate Your Authority is a Critical Factor

Even the strongest willed people can tell you that it’s not authority they have trouble with—it’s how the authority is communicated.  They wouldn’t respect their parents if they drew the line, then moved it.  They wouldn’t respect the government if they made laws and didn’t enforce them.  But if you try to come across as The Big Boss with a loud or threatening voice, you usually won’t get cooperation or respect.  Remember, those who anger you, control you. If an 11-year old boy can get you to yell at him, he’s just wrestled control of the situation out of your hands.

Keep your voice calm, respectful, and firm.  If you are truly the authority, you control the consequences for disobedience.  If you get pushback, simply restate the directive in the same calm voice—as many times as it takes. In the end, he will either comply, or choose to take the consequences.  

Ask More Questions; Issue Fewer Orders

Most people—regardless of their age—don’t want to be bossed around.  Your authority will be much more effective if you can turn a lot of your statements into questions that expect the best of the person you’re directing.  For example, instead of saying “Mike, you said you’d take the garbage out before dinner and it’s dinner time—you need to take it out now” you can pull the accusation out by simply asking, “Mike, were you going to take that garbage out before dinner?”  You’ll be amazed how often the response will be, “Oh, yeah,” and the action will be done.  

“Your strong willed child is going to change the world. Much of it depends on you, as a parent, which direction that world changer will take.”

~Cynthia Tobias,
From her best selling book, You Can’t Make Me (but I Can be Persuaded): Strategies for Bringing Out the Best in Your Strong-willed Child

There’s even a magic word that, if said in the right tone of voice, gets cooperation almost 80% of the time.  It’s the word OK. “It’s time to go now” is replaced with “It’s time to go now, OK?”  Use your firm, calm voice—you’re not saying you don’t have to if you don’t want to.  You’re saying I know you can choose to take the consequences if you want to, but I sure hope you don’t.  You’re not asking permission or pleading for obedience—you’re actually making the OK more of a statement than a question, and yet your child feels he has more control over himself.

Even as adults, don’t we respond better to a question than an order?  Instead of “You need to get that report on my desk by five,” I respond much better to “Will you be able to get that report on my desk by five?”

Love Unconditionally

 We often say, “I love you no matter what.”

And our children may reply, “Really?  What if I do this? Do you love me now?  How about this?” And sometimes the unintended message is that you love me if I do what you say, if I follow your rules.  Otherwise, you don’t seem to love me at all.  

Bottom line: What our children need to experience from us is, “You don’t get by with bad behavior, but bad behavior does not result in my loving you less. You are worth the trouble, worth the work.  No matter what the consequences may have to be, my love for you doesn’t waver.”For more strategies and resources, you can read You Can’t Make Me! (But I Can Be Persuaded) or visit CynthiaTobias.com.

About Cybthia: The best-selling author of 13 books, including You Can’t Make Me (But I Can be Persuaded), The Way They Learn, The Way We Work, Every Child Can Succeed,, and A Woman of Strength and Purpose.

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