Seeing Beyond the Wall

As I was walking through the park the other day, I passed a little girl who was clearly very upset about something. She followed her mother, arms and legs extended straight, her hands balled into fists, face screwed up. “I don’t want to!” she wailed angrily, “I don’t want to!”

I had to laugh. All morning I had been putting up a wall to fight something, anything, everything, muttering to myself in the shower, picking arguments with people I’d never see again. Every time I caught myself, I said, “Hey, what’s going on? This is very negative. Get ahold of yourself, think positive!” and every time I fell back into my black hole. The grey cloud followed me while I got dressed, got organized, and got out of the house. It loomed over me while I stomped through the streets and into the park.

But my wall dissipated when this little girl screamed, “I don’t want to!” She so perfectly captured what I felt inside that all the bad feelings went away and I began to enjoy the day. Sometimes all we need is to know that someone else knows what we are feeling. Sometimes all we need is to give our inner child a hug.

A raging child – inner or outer – is completely unreasonable. It wants what it wants when it wants it – or it doesn’t want just as strongly. Arguing with a child, reasoning with it, is of no use. I remember reading a story about a man whose child threw a tantrum because she wanted to sit at the head of the table. The round table. There’s no arguing with that.

All you can do is reflect. When my nephew and I dashed into a store one Christmas to buy a forgotten ingredient, he was immediately distracted by the candy. Knowing how hard I find it to say no to him, he asked me for candy, and I said No. “But I want it,” he said and I replied, “I know, sweetie.” “I really want it,” he said. I acknowledged his request neutrally without giving in to it, without putting up a wall of NO. He continued repeating “I want it” as we searched the store for whatever rare herb it was that we had forgotten until the last minute, expecting to find it in a convenience store on Christmas day. Finally giving up on our fruitless quest, we returned to the car with one last sigh of, “I really wanted that candy.”

Sometimes I’ve been able to stave off a tantrum with a simple reflection back to the child that yes, candy is delicious and you can understand how powerfully they want it, without getting caught up or giving in to the wish and without arguing that you can’t sit at the head of a round table because it doesn’t have a head. Other times there is more going on, and just reflecting back the obvious isn’t going to be enough. You have to see through the wall of outer statement to figure out what’s going on behind and reflect that emotion back to them.

Another Christmas day, we took the special Christmas gift, a remote controlled plane, to the park to try it out for the first time. An argument erupted – did we go to the playing fields, which were flat and grassy, and didn’t have trees or other obstacles to work around? Or did we go to the other park, a series of terraces, with bushes and trees? They were equidistant away and the parent made the logical choice but the child wanted the other park. The parent reasoned with the fact-based arguments and the child replied with emotion. His reasons didn’t make any sense, consisting mainly of, “I want it because I want it.” The parent was getting frustrated. Trying to stave off WWIII, I said, “It seems like you really don’t want to go to the playing fields.” The child tearfully agreed and I asked what it was he didn’t like about the playing fields. “There may be people there,” he said.

Of course the parent countered that there might be people at the park, too. We wisely ignored him and continued our discussion. “Having strangers around worries you,” I said, feeling around for what was really going on.

“They’ll laugh at me,” he said.

“If you aren’t perfect the first time?” I suggested.

“Yes.” And I agreed that would be embarrassing. We walked toward the playing fields silently for a while. “Maybe there won’t be anyone there,” I suggested. “Maybe they’ll be home opening presents.”

He shrugged, tacitly agreeing that we’d see. But, as we came over the ridge, it became clear we’d be sharing the fields with a group of college guys playing rugby. His reaction was immediate, “Oh no! Just as I worried.” But momentum carried us forward and he looked closer and added, “Oh, it’s ok. They’re Asian.” And ran forward with his plane.

My mind was blown. That glimpse behind his wall revealed a fear somehow having to do with being Asian himself and how he might be judged by white guys. I couldn’t explore this more because he dove into flying his plane and ended up having a marvelous time (despite the fact that, granted a try at the end of the day, his beloved auntie flew it into a tree) and the rugby-guys even commended him for his piloting skill. And then we were home and swallowed up by the chaos that is Christmas.

When you push back on someone’s wall rather than reflecting, you miss the opportunity to discover what is going on behind that wall. This is true whether the person you’re reflecting is a child, a colleague, or yourself.

One of the best lessons I ever learned as a manager came from James. James was my opening cashier and James was great but he had been coming in late every day. As each day went by, I tried what I had learned a manager should do – I made sure he knew he was late. I told him it was important to be on time. I pointed out how his lateness impacted the success of the team. I pointed out his pattern of lateness and warned of the consequences. He continued to be late. Finally, in frustration, I asked what he would do if he were a manager and his opening cashier showed up late every day. His answer floored me.

“I’d ask them what’s going on.”

“…Uh, James, what’s going on?”

It turned out that he lived with his mother and elderly grandmother, who couldn’t be left alone. His mother left before him to get to her really early shift. Unfortunately, their caretaker was unreliable and didn’t arrive on time, and it wasn’t safe for James to leave his grandmother alone.

My heart broke. I asked James what I could do to help – did he need to switch shifts with someone while he got this straightened out?

“No,” he answered quietly. “I’ll take care of it.”

And he did. By the end of the week, James started arriving on time and he was never late again.

All he needed was for me to ask what was going on behind his wall and appreciate what he was going through. Then he took action and resolved the situation.

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

What are your techniques for getting behind people’s walls? Have you ever peeked behind a wall and received information that blew your mind?

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