There is nothing as sweet as a comeback, when you are down and out, about to lose, and out of time.
Rewarding but challenging, comebacks can be difficult to come by when you are in a conflict situation. The following comeback formula can be a powerful retort with great grandmas, in-laws, dads, brothers, neighbors, partners and even your child. Teach it to your child and you will know that they have a tool that can be used anytime they are in a confrontation with another person. It’s easy to remember and a surefire way of keeping ears open when you are talking. Often in a conflict, it’s tempting to use the word “you” since you are typically upset with the other person and are trying to communicate that you are angry or frustrated with them and letting them know why that is the case. But using “you” in a conflict as in “You didn’t do the dishes as we agreed.” only puts the other person on the defensive. They may half listen or not listen at all because they feel the accusations coming. But sprinkle on the following power phrase and you may receive a different, more receptive response.
I feel (angry, hurt, scared, frustrated, concerned, worried, confused, sad)
when you (do that thing you do that makes me crazy)
because (“I lose control over the situation.”; “It seems like you are not listening to me.”;“It makes me feel like you don’t care.”)
This sentence, otherwise known as an “I” message or “I” statement, is so powerful because the one using it is taking responsibility for their own feelings in the situation. It’s difficult to contest a person who is expressing how they feel. “I” statements can be taught to any age child or young adult to use in a conflict. “I can’t believe you took my idea and used it!” becomes “I feel so hurt, confused and frustrated that you took my idea because you knew I came up with it and felt strongly about it.” Schools that teach communications skills or have a social and emotional learning or problem-solving curriculum include this as part of their instruction. But why not utilize this tool at home in your personal life? As with any tool or strategy that can be used during an emotional time, it’s essential to practice when you are not emotional. Start by trying it out yourself. Then after you’ve found your own comfort and success with it, begin teaching your children. Make the role playing fun. Particularly if you begin to use it with your partner and your children, the language will start to feel more natural and become incorporated into how you communicate as a family.
If you have younger children, preschool or kindergarteners, you can use a modified version of the “I” statement[i] and teach them to say “I don’t like it when you (“don’t share your toy with me.” or “grab my toy out of my hands.”) I have used this very successfully with my own preschooler. Often children don’t know what to say when another child is aggressive with them. This gives them a quick response that makes them feel better and hopefully stops the problem. You can let them know that if the action does not stop, they need to move away from the child and/or tell an adult. You may have opportunities to coach them to say an “I” statement in the moment since you are likely in the position of supervising more than you would be with an older child. As your child looks up at you with a helpless expression when they are confronted with a friend in a conflict situation, give them those words, “I don’t like it when you…” and allow them to use it to manage the conflict. Children this age are beginning to communicate frustration through language (and less through physical expression) but are still learning about how to identify and verbalize feelings. This is a critical time to help children articulate their feelings after a situation has occurred. Dialoguing about feelings with an adult will give them the practice, language and self-awareness necessary to graduate to problem-solving involving “I” statements. But this modified statement is one they can remember and empowers them to try and handle the problem directly and on their own.
Stick a post-it note on your desk or refrigerator and remind yourself to try this out. You’ll find this comeback does work. Through its use, you will feel empowered to end the blame game that so often occurs in family life. It can open doors to respect, listening and improved communications with a little practice. Imagine coming home from a work meeting to your pre-teen child after school. She is playing with a neighbor friend and they have not yet heard that you are home. You overhear a heated conflict, voices rising and stop to listen. Your daughter says, “I feel so angry when you talk about Amy (a school friend) that way because she’s my friend too and it doesn’t mean I’m not your friend or like you any less because I’m friends with her.” Observing your children handling their own conflicts with skill is a reward in itself. You will have given your children a communication tool that they can use when you are not there to help them work through problems.
[i] Crowe, C. (2009). Solving thorny behavior problems; How teachers and students can work together. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.