When I train coaches, I encourage them not to take kids’ challenging behavior at face value, but to think about the WHY behind the behavior. Kids sit out of activities or act defiantly and the temptation as adults is to simply respond to the behaviors we can see on the surface. But underneath those behaviors, if we ask and engage them, we might see the frustration, fear or disappointment driving their choices. Below the layer of kids’ defiance, if we’re really looking, we might find a need for positive reinforcement or a little extra TLC. In my professional trainings, I like to refer to this approach as looking under the hood of the car — we don’t automatically assume that a car stopped on the side of the road is out of gas. Instead we investigate the cause and help solve the problem. The same should go for people. However, I recently realized, that while I take this approach in my work with kids, I have not necessarily applied the same principle to my adult relationships.
Last week, this realization unexpectedly dawned while I interviewed Eve Rodsky about her book FAIR PLAY, which offers strategies for rebalancing the domestic workload in our families. We discussed her application the legal concept of “Minimum Standard of Care” to home life where domestic partners need to determine what the baseline level of quality should be for accomplishing various household tasks. In her book, Eve tells the story of how her husband took on the responsibility of taking out the garbage in their house, but his minimum standard of care for that job was so far below hers that it nearly sent their marriage into a tailspin. She describes how the situation around garbage devolved into arguments and recriminations until, out of fury and hurt, she finally explained to her husband WHY his failure to meet the minimum standard of care was so upsetting to her. When pushed to her breaking point, Eve described her childhood memories of garbage piling up in her family’s small Lower East Side apartment, cockroaches on the floor and bugs in the cereal boxes. She explained that having garbage spilling out of the home she shares with her husband brings back painful memories from when she was young. When Eve eventually gave her husband the WHY of her higher standards, he could understand that taking out the garbage was not just about taking out the garbage and could execute better on the WHAT. By sharing her WHY, Eve gave her husband the opportunity to look under the hood of the car, providing the underpinnings of her expectations, allowing understanding to replace conflict and empathy to replace anger in their home.
Hearing Eve’s story inspired me to consider the seemingly mundane but emotionally weighty conflicts in my own family. In particular, I thought of the times I speak to my husband impatiently about the suitcases left by our bed, newspapers spread across the kitchen counter or shoes piled in the hallway. It caused me to revisit my seemingly irrational anger when things in our house aren’t put away and I feel like a tide of chaos and mess is swelling uncontrolled towards me. While I have gotten upset about this issue countless times in our 20 years of marriage, I have never discussed with my husband the WHY of my anger. Year after year, I have simply told him to clean up because I can’t function productively until my house is in order. But talking to Eve the other night started me thinking about what is underneath the hood of my own car. I considered why messiness makes me feel unhappy and how I could communicate that to my family.
As a child, my family moved A LOT when I was a kid. By the time I had turned 12 we had moved five times within the same town. Lest you are tempted to feel sorry for me, please don’t. These were not moves caused by lack of financial resources or lack of safety. These were moves prompted by the needs of our growing family and by my mother’s creative passion for design and renovation. However, as I thought about the WHY underneath my need for neat spaces I realized that the frequent moves in my childhood made it very important for me to establish orderly, settled places in my adulthood. Whenever I arrive at a hotel room, I have to unpack immediately, much like I did when I moved into a new room in a new house during my childhood. At the end of a work day, I line up the shoes in our hallway, put away soccer backpacks and recycle newspapers before I can settle into the evening routine. I cannot start working on a weekend morning unless my bed is made and the coffee pot has been cleaned out. When my physical space feels settled, my mental space feels settled.
My husband, on the other hand, my husband easily feels settled in his mind even amongst chaos in his physical space. He cannot relate to my need to make order out of chaos. The WHAT of my need — orderly spaces — is an anathema to him. But when I explained to him WHY it is important to me and how it’s not about me trying to control him but rather trying to feel some semblance of control in myself, he could hear me. I have come to realize that even when our partners can’t always relate to the WHAT we are asking of them, if we give them the opportunity to understand our WHY, they will ultimately respect the need for the WHAT. Giving our partners the opportunity to look under the hood of the car is a sign of trust that while we know the WHAT may not matter to them, we have faith that the WHY will matter enough to help make change.