My friend Ernest was reminiscing about when his son was a little boy. Ernest had noticed that, when asked about what happened in his day, his son was very elusive. He found a way around that. When he’d get home, in the evening, he’d kneel down to be on the same level as his son, put an arm around his shoulders, and begin: “Let me tell you about my day”.
Before long, the son was excitedly telling Ernest all about his day, including such things as: “And the teacher got mad at me”. And Ernest would ask: “Now, why would she?” And the boy would recount a mischief of his…
You can read this and conclude that this is a good recipe for getting a child to reveal what they’d otherwise keep hidden. If so, you’d be missing the point.
What’s missing from my writing about the story is all the warmth that radiates from Ernest as he tells the story. It is quite obvious, as you listen to him, that he doesn’t see this as a trick. The lesson he means to convey is that, the more open he was himself, the more his son would open up. He was building trust.
Now, let’s assume you say: “Aha. I get it. If I want people to open up, I need to fake openness”. Well, that might work, to some extent. The way canned friendliness works for car salesmen.
The mirth in Ernest’s eyes wasn’t about pulling a fast one on his son. It was more like the enjoyment of how he had stumbled into a great thing, a way to be even closer to his son.
I’d like to now articulate what I see as the more general principle behind this story. Let’s say you’re facing a difficult situation (in this story, trouble getting your child to open up).
If you just stay at the surface of things, chances are that you’re going to tense up, and pressure will build up—which will probably be counterproductive. In this example, tension and pressure would take the form of you interrogating your child instead of having a warm, relaxed conversation.
It is more proactive is to pay attention to the probable consequences of the situation. You then realize that you need to find a way to ease up, not tense up.
A further step is to start being intrigued by the fact that you tense up instead of easing up. So you’re not going to try to force yourself to relax (generally not a very effective method).
Noticing your tension, accepting it as a fact, opens up the possibility that you’re going to be genuinely curious about finding out what stands in the way of your relaxing.
In other words, you start to see the situation as a catalyst that makes it possible for you to grow into who you really want to be, not just act the part.