Don’t Ask “Why?” Ask “What’s Your Proposal?”

© 2014 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Today’s culture is riddled with disrespectful challenges that are totally unnecessary. Rather than becoming more informed by discussions of current events or other issues, people often end up with personal criticisms, defensiveness, anger and frustration. The focus is often on challenging the other person’s point of view or their past behavior. “Why did you say that?” or “Why did you do that?” or “Why don’t you respect my point of view?” “Why” tends to put people on the defensive and onto focusing on the past (which cannot be changed).

The Big Shift

Rather than focusing on the past and negative feedback, I suggest that we – as a culture – need to shift the focus onto the future and making positive proposals about what we want or explaining how we see things in a positive way. This is the simple approach which I have explained in simple terms in my new book: So, What’s Your Proposal?

Since parents and teachers have such a great opportunity to start teaching this shift as they prepare for the coming school year, I am including part of the chapter in this book on education in this month’s newsletter. It explains how parents, teachers and school administrators can start teaching this approach right away. Who knows? Maybe we can shift our culture away from blame and disrespect to one of learning to make positive proposals for problem-solving – starting now!

[Excerpt from So, What’s Your Proposal? Chapter Six: Choices in Education]

Proposals imply choices. Choices imply respect. And one of the biggest things students of all ages want is respect.

When you offer the other person your proposals, it means that you realize you are giving him or her a choice. And when you ask, “So, what’s your proposal?” you are making the other person aware that you know you have a choice—that you won’t be pushed around.

This chapter will address how making proposals and asking for proposals can help students in different age groups, as well as their parents, teachers, and administrators.

Coping with Pressures and HCPs

The anxiety level of today’s children is higher than that of children in psychiatric treatment in the 1950s. By the 1990s the average college student was more anxious than 71 percent of the college students in the 1970s, according to Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. These comparisons were made before the attacks of 9/11. Many indicators suggest that students are even more stressed today.

While much of this is beyond any one person’s control, there are many predictable areas of pressure and conflict in education today where we do have the potential to gain control in dealing with others—including skills that can be taught for managing situations with high-conflict people (“HCPs”) at school. And since HCPs are increasing at a younger and younger age, today’s children need skills in dealing with pressures and HCPs that their parents may not have needed in the past:

Elementary school children have more bullies to deal with.
Middle school and high school students have cyberbullies, exposure to Internet pornography, and abuse of their own photos and misdeeds in the form of “sexting.”
College students have less certain career choices, lower earning potential than their parents, and a higher percentage of HCPs in their dating pool.
Graduate students have higher debts, more competition for jobs, and more potential HCPs in positions of power over their futures.
That’s just the stress on students. Then there’s the stress on parents, who are competing with the Internet and role models of bad behavior, while also dealing with divorce, mental health problems in their children (perhaps 25 percent of today’s teenagers), job changes or losses, increased costs for higher education (if that is even an option), and being blamed by society for everything that’s wrong with kids today.

Then, there are the teachers, who have to deal with an increasing number of HCP students who challenge them in class, break the rules, bully other students, and don’t listen to their instructions. They also may get less support from some parents these days, who are uninvolved or overinvolved in their children’s education. Yet, everyone’s expectations are higher today for individual teachers to “perform” and prove that their students are learning.

Then there are more HCP parents to deal with, who may undermine the teacher’s discipline and study requirements, or blame the teacher for everything that’s “wrong” with their child. And, of course, today’s teachers have to deal with parents who are going through high-conflict separations or divorces, including fighting over the child at school or trying to eliminate the other parent’s contact with the school.

And let’s not forget about the administrators—from elementary school principals to university presidents—who must satisfy the high expectations of a wide range of stakeholders. They are a particular magnet for HCPs, because HCPs tend to attack those in positions of authority, and administrators appear to have the most authority in school settings.

How can making proposals and asking for proposals help with all of these problems? We’ll look at some examples in different age groups.

The “Bully”

Some elementary school students already demonstrate signs of having high-conflict personalities—they break the rules, assault or intimidate other students, and talk back to teachers and staff. But, of course, that’s also what children do as they grow up and learn the limits of their aggressive social behavior. So telling a child he is a “bully” may be just as inappropriate as telling someone he is an HCP. In fact, many children exhibit the behavior of both bullies and victims, so it can be hard to tell who “bullied” whom. In general, we don’t think of people as having a personality disorder until they’re adults, as most children show signs of extreme behavior—emotions and thinking—on their way to becoming balanced, responsible adults.

Bullying is defined as a pattern of aggressive behavior (not just one incident) intended to intimidate a person with lesser power or status. Overall, bullying behavior needs to be restrained and changed, especially while children are young. It can be hard on other students to see this behavior, because they are still learning the rules and boundaries, and they often mimic high-conflict behavior when there aren’t sufficient restraints present. They also need to learn how to defend themselves against such behavior and how to be good citizens.

Let’s consider an example here. Suppose that Annie is being hassled by Tony in her third-grade class. No one else is around.

Tony tells Annie, “You’re just stupid. No one likes you. Give me your snack!”

Annie feels helpless and gives Tony her snack. She hates herself for doing that, but she was afraid of him. A lot of children who get bullied are afraid to “confront the bully,” and this makes them feel worse about themselves. They don’t feel strong enough for a confrontation, so if their parents tell them to fight back, they feel trapped: It’s too scary to challenge the bully and it’s overwhelming to challenge their parents. Bullies see this self-doubt and often increase their bullying, because they believe they have a willing victim.

But another approach is to teach children that they have choices—and so does the bully. They can tell themselves that it is the bully—not themselves—who is choosing to act badly and that they have the right to choose how to respond. If it doesn’t feel safe to fight back or say something challenging, they can choose to tell themselves, “He’s acting badly, not me. I don’t have to agree with him. I have choices. I can think that he’s an idiot even if I don’t say it out loud.”

Now, suppose Annie gets some practice at home making proposals and responding to proposals. Her parents allow her to say “No” or “I’ll think about it” from time to time. In dealing with intimidating behavior, her parents have taught her that she has choices. Sometimes, to protect herself, Annie may just do what the bully says. Other times, she may say something and challenge the bully. She is not required to speak up and confront the bully, but she can always tell herself she has choices and that the bully is not respecting her choices.

Feeling that you have choices can increase your confidence. It’s your choice to confront the bully—or not. You haven’t given any power to the bully over you. Another choice is to resist the bully without directly confronting him. Let’s look at how this could work for Annie:

Tony says, “You’re just stupid. No one likes you. Give me your snack!”

Annie thinks to herself, I’ve got choices. I can choose to say, “No. Leave me alone.” So that’s what she says.

But suppose Tony now says, “How dare you say no to me!” Then he takes a swing to punch her in the nose.

Annie backs away a little, but firmly says what her parents have told her: “If you hit me, you’ll be in big trouble!”

Tony says, “What? You’re really stupid.” And, with that, he walks away.

He doesn’t punch her in the nose. He doesn’t know what to think of what Annie just said, but she didn’t act intimidated. It was her sense of confidence that she had choices—and he had choices—that made him leave her alone.

Of course, she should also be taught to run away and get help if she felt in serious danger. Or to say nothing and protect her face. These are all choices that only she can make in the moment. But if Annie is trained in making these choices, it can help her feel better about herself and not get stuck believing there’s something wrong with her, a message that bullies often try to convey. It’s her choice and her parents taught her they would respect whichever choice she made when dealing with a bully.

The High School Student

Vicki and Paul Gable were divorced for three years when their son, Nate, entered tenth grade.

“I want our son to go to college,” Paul said to Vicki on the phone. “That’s how you get ahead in the world today.”

“But you know he’s not a very good student,” Vicki insisted. “It’s too much pressure on him to try to go to college. I think he would do better learning a skill that uses his hands.”

“There isn’t much money in that,” Paul said. “Let’s sit down with him and discuss it—see what he’s thinking about his future.”

“He isn’t thinking about his future,” Vicki said. “That’s part of the problem.”

“Tell him we want to jointly have a meeting with him about his future, and we want to know his ideas too,” he said. “He lives mostly with you, so you need to be the one to set it up.”

Later that day, Vicki approached her son, “Nate, your father and I want to have a meeting with you to start talking about your future.”

“I don’t want a meeting. Can’t you just leave my future up to me?” Nate exclaimed.

“That’s not one of the options,” Vicki said. “You can’t live here for the rest of your life. We need to find a time either this weekend or next weekend. I’ll give you 24 hours to propose a day and a couple times, if you want. If you don’t by then, we will pick a date and time to meet.”

Nate was used to his parents asking him to make proposals. “Oh, all right! How about next Sunday afternoon—around two or four?”

On the next Sunday at 4 p.m. at Vicki’s house, Paul explained, “We want the best for you, Nate. We’re willing to help you go to college. We have some money saved. But first we need to know what you think about your future.”

“I don’t know if I want to go to college,” Nate replied. “I don’t know what I want to do. I’d really like to travel and see the world. I like wild adventures, you know that.”

“Yes, we do. You’re great at that,” said Vicki. Nate was a skilled athlete, especially skateboarding, and he was getting into surfing now, since his mom lived near the beach. “But it takes money. How do you plan to earn the money to do that—to see the world?”

“I’ll win some competitions,” Nate quickly replied. “I’ll earn my own money that way. Until that happens, can I live with one of you guys for a couple extra years? It will really help if I can keep living near the beach until I win some competitions.”

“Well, that’s one option,” Vicki commented, with a skeptical frown. “But it’s a very long shot. You know that. There aren’t many professional skateboarders or surfers. I’m not sure I would be helping you by letting you live here for free after you graduate high school.”

Paul looked at Vicki and said, “That wouldn’t be a good idea. It will set him back if you let him get away with that. That’s the opposite of what he needs.” Turning to Nate, “Do you have any other ideas? We’re not going to be around forever to support you, like we do now. You’ll have a lot more choices if you go to college.”

“Yeah, but they say that college doesn’t make a difference anymore,” Nate said. “You can learn everything on the Internet now. Look at Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates—they both dropped out of college. Look at them!”

“But they both got into Harvard,” Paul retorted. “If you can get into Harvard, you’re going to have a pretty good future regardless of what you do. But do you have any research to support your point of view—that college graduates don’t make any more than high school graduates nowadays?”

No, but everyone knows it. The world has changed!”

“Not that much,” said his mother.

“Tell you what,” Paul interrupted. “I will support you living at home—either one of our homes—for four years after you graduate high school if you can show me credible proof that having a college degree wouldn’t make a difference financially for your future. What do you think about that idea? And if you can’t find such proof, then will you agree to tell us three colleges you might want to go to? Or some other career path that you want us to help you with? You need to come up with some proposals—unless you can find evidence that college doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Don’t push him too hard, Paul. He’s still in high school,” Vicki said.

“Well, we’re trying to save up to help him with college. He needs to start thinking about it too.”

“Okay, okay!” Nate exclaimed. “I’ll come up with something. Can I go now?”

“All right,” Paul replied. “We’ll give you a couple weeks to think about this and come up with a few proposals for how we can help you with your career choices. And let me know what you find out about whether college doesn’t matter anymore.”

Two weeks later, Nate talked to his parents. “Okay, Dad. You were right. A two-year college program gets you 22 percent more income than high school, and a four-year college gets you 66 percent more. It actually got me thinking about going into some kind of sports medicine—you know, physical therapy or maybe even being a doctor. I realize I’ve got to get my grades up these next couple years. Will you guys help me figure out where I can afford to go? I’ll need to apply next year.”

“I really like your proposals, Nate,” Paul said.

“Oh, they’re not proposals. That’s what I’ve decided,” said Nate, emphatically.

“Well, great!” his father exclaimed. “Let us know how we can help. And we’ll let you know what we can afford. Right, Vicki?”

“Right! For sure. Good choice. You’ve really surprised me and I’ll do what I can to help. Remember, we love you no matter which choices you make.”

Discussion of This Example

Paul and Vicki got Nate thinking about his choices by telling him what they were willing to do and asking him what he proposed—or at least was thinking—about his future. Although Paul was intending to be rigid about Nate attending college, he started to look at it as just one option among many. Vicki was going to be rigid about not putting too much pressure on Nate. But by approaching the discussion as one about choices for them and choices for Nate, they got Nate thinking with his problem-solving brain without getting stuck in his defensive brain—which would have happened had his parents started arguing about his future.

Since a major aspect of the teenage years is learning how to think through problems, educating a teenager about choices and encouraging him or her to make proposals based on those choices is essential. Brain scientists say that the brain isn’t fully developed until about age twenty-five. Much of the later stages of this development occurs in the prefrontal context, the area of the brain where we learn to override impulsive and over-reactive emotions and behavior. It helps if parents can work together on helping their teen learn to make decisions, especially because at least half of teenagers today have parents who are separated or divorced.

It also helps to predict setbacks and allow high school students to experience failures and then get back on their feet again. If Nate does or doesn’t get his grades up, it will help him make decisions about his career. His parents understand that his recent “decision” isn’t really final, but they don’t want to discourage him. High school students are supposed to be getting ready to be adults by experimenting with different friends, behaviors, styles, interests—and by overcoming failures, so that they learn how to handle failures later on as adults.

Some parents try to protect their children from setbacks, but in so doing their kids never learn the skills they need to move forward and overcome setbacks as adults. Children who grow up feeling entitled to success have a much harder time as adults, because they can’t cope with failures. Many high-conflict people have this characteristic of becoming enraged when they fail at something. It’s better to learn how to overcome obstacles while you’re young and have more support and information available from family members, friends, teachers, and others.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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