Margaret had a classic class clown in her second grade one year. Ruben was smart, active, inquisitive, and made the class laugh several times a day, disrupting Margaret’s lessons. She found him infuriating, but fury was not recognized as an acceptable professional approach. By the third week of the year, she was sending him into the hallway for a “timeout” as a regular practice. That Friday, she lost her temper and sent Ruben to the principal’s office.
Over the weekend Margaret worried, thought, wondered, pondered, stewed, and talked to a friend about what she should do to fix this problem. Only three weeks of school! It just couldn’t go on like this! Nonetheless, Monday morning she arrived at school without a plan.
Luckily, Ruben was the first student into the classroom that morning. She stopped her class preparations, and gave him her usual big smile that accompanied her customary, friendly “Good morning, Ruben.”
A happy “Good morning,” was Ruben’s reply.
“Did you have a nice weekend?”
“Yes, Ms. Prior.”
“What did you do?”
“I watched ‘Princess Bride.”
“Did you like it?”
“It was hilarious!”
“I know. I love that movie.”
Then, Margaret suddenly had an inspiration. “You are a comedian, aren’t you?”
“YES!” He said with his biggest grin ever and even a little embarrassment.
“I know. I see that in you,” and just then another student came in. Margaret greeted him and then went back to preparing for class.
Now, Margaret had an idea. She lay in wait for Ruben as she and the class went through her planned activities. Her moment came sooner than expected. As one student was leading the calendar-based math activity, another one piped up: “The red ones are all odd numbers.”
Ruben jumped in with “That’s odd.” Everybody laughed, including Margaret. “That’s funny,” she said. “You made a pun.”
The lesson continued, and Margaret kept her ears open. A few minutes later, Ruben responded to another student’s observation with a sarcastic remark. The student slumped.
“That’s not funny, “ said Margaret. Ruben’s face fell. He participated constructively with no more jokes until recess. In his reading group after recess Ruben made another joke and Margaret laughed, “That’s another good one.”
For the rest of the day Margaret pointed out good jokes, and simply said: “That’s not funny” to ones that were distracting, hurtful or disruptive. Before long Ruben was working with her instead of against her. Margaret and the class had a great year that year.
When I told this story to a parent, she said, “Brilliant. But when I get mad, I can’t think of anything creative on the spot. How can I be this brilliant in the heat of the moment?”
We all have this challenge. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, employer or an employee, whether that other person is a friend, enemy or spouse, he can be a problem. When that person is a “problem,” we go into problem solving mode; when in problem-solving mode we tend to employ our problem-solving self to address the problem; when this executive self is in charge, we forget all the other resources we have in our hidden self and leave our genius sitting on the sidelines.
Where did Margaret’s brilliance come from? Her genius. Only her genius could think of something so counter-intuitive as to side with the person who was giving her the problem, to let go of her defensive self and to use her empathetic self. Only then could she have the “presence of mind” to think of saying: “You are a comedian, aren’t you?” Only then was she free to see the world from other points of view than the one her executive self had.
Here are some tricks that people have discovered over the years, tricks for freeing yourself from the blindness of your self:
2) Buy time. One parent I know says: “This is such an important issue. I am going to have to give this some thought.” (This works as a response to misdeeds as well as challenging questions.)
3) Stay on the side of the child. (Don’t make him the enemy.)
4) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (We all get better with practice.)
To “get mad” is crazy. The lifelong challenge of building and fixing relationships requires bringing our whole selves to the table. Our executive self needs the inner resources of our hidden self, and this entails being in conversation with our genius.