How to change a bad question into a good one
Updated: Aug 10, 2019
I was recently asked the following question in an interview: "What do you do when a 10-year old girl regularly torpedoes the family outings by lying on the floor and refusing to budge?" This is a bad way to formulate the problem, for it often leads to a power struggle or to endless and hopeless attempts at persuasion (or worse, an attempt to buy silence by highly problematic concessions). So what is wrong with the question? After all the parents have to do something when they want to go out, don't they?
The problem is the attempt to control. Parents have no real control over their children. Yes, they can force them if they have the might and are willing to use it, but this will surely get them in trouble. Parents can also punish the girl, so as to "make her understand". Well, this girl probably won't. Actually she may well punish her parents twice as badly.
This kind of question is so common, that maybe it was one of the triggers that led me to develop NVR. How can we transform this question into a better one? One that won't leave the parents helpless and doom the relationship to endless power struggles?
I'd start by asking the parents whether their daughter has additional impositions on them or her siblings (in this case there was an 8-year old brother). A girl that uses power in such a determined way will usually not restrict herself to the family's outings. Most parents will describe a long series of impositions. In this case, there were harsh rules regarding her brother (for instance, he was not allowed to play the saxophone in the living-room, or anywhere in the house when she was doing her homework), on her parents' social life (there were people they could not invite to the house), on the way they should clean and lock the house, and on the sitting and serving order at meals. I asked the parents if they felt they and their son lived under severe constraints. The mother smiled ruefully and said they lived under a regime of terror! Other parents use expressions, such as "oppression" or "compulsion". The French, who apparently are little affected by political correctness, coined the expression "tyrannous children" to describe this phenomenon. As you can imagine, the moment we are talking about oppression, compulsion or tyranny, we are already in the field of NVR.
In NVR we would reformulate the parents' question, from "what can we do to make her behave in an acceptable way?" to "how can we resist?" or "how can we struggle for our freedom?" The difference is very deep. The new questions do not assume that they can change their daughter’s behavior to the way they want. But they can resist the coercion. Parents have no control over the child, but only over themselves.
In NVR the parents deliver an announcement to the child. The announcement regards only their behavior. It is formulated in the first person plural. An example would be: "We have decided we'll no longer submit to your orders. We'll do all in our power to resist them in non-violent ways and to protect ourselves and your brother from violence. We won't stay alone in this, but will get help from anybody that is willing to help us!"
They can then talk to the grandparents, uncles and aunts, and to some of their good friends. In NVR we help them approach these people for assistance in a way that is candid, but also respectful towards their daughter. In most cases such controlling behavior is usually due to anxiety. So the girl is not described as "bad", but as herself under compulsion - the compulsion of her fears. This allows for a respectful approach of the supporters towards the girl.
The new formulation also changes the focus of their attempt. They don't have to get the girl to behave as they want or punish her for her acts, but only to stop submitting passively. They are already on their way to this new focus, when they approach the supporters and deliver the announcement. Now comes additional acts of resistance. They stop performing services that are enforced by threats or violence. They develop ways to endure her temper-tantrums. They document acts of violence and bring the documentation to the knowledge of the supporters. They can also make an appointment with a "baby-sitter", say for ten o'clock, before going out for their program (they can pay for two hours in advance). At ten minutes to ten they ask their daughter "We're going downtown, do you want to join us?" If she agrees, they call the baby-sitter and tell her she doesn't have to come. If she throws herself on the floor, the parents don't react but continue getting ready to go out. This already changes the interaction, for it is not easy to stay lying on the floor when the parents don't react. When they are ready to go, the baby-sitter comes and they leave. Will the girl attack the baby-sitter under these circumstances? No she won't. These children don't attack others, but only their parents.
But is this not "shaming"? No, it is not. "Shaming" is an attempt to humiliate. In this case, the supporters address the girl (never more than two supporters in one week, so that the girl doesn't feel cornered) by telling her: "We care for you, we believe in you and we're willing to help. But this is violence, and it has to stop!" But the girl will feel ashamed! Yes she will, but in a context of support. This is a constructive and not a destructive kind of shame, such as the one experienced in "shaming".
But will this not destroy the whole relationship between the parents and their daughter? On the contrary! Before they started to resist, the relationship was a coercive one. Resentment piled up continuously. Siblings in particular never forgive their parents for leaving them at the mercy of their violent sister or brother. And the girl herself is in a hopeless position, because her ability to force the parents to do her bidding, keeps her anxiety at a maximum. Research is very clear in this respect: Parental giving-in to the demands of an anxious child badly aggravates the anxiety. Actually, this girl’s only hope is that her parents resist.
So what happens to the relationship? After an initial period of strain, it improves. As the relationship is no longer violent, the parents overcome their resentment and the loving elements in the relationship that were in abeyance, because of the violence and power struggles, reappear. We are not fantasizing. We demonstrated this in many studies.