How to Respond to Someone’s Inner Two-Year-Old


Competing priorities are very evident when dealing with a two-year-old. Adults compromise, negotiate, persuade, enforce and request. Two-year-olds demand. Responding to those demands requires great diplomacy. Two-year-olds don’t have patience for unsatisfactory answers. And they don’t take the high road by letting you off the hook.

One night last week, my two-year-old told me she wanted yogurt as we prepared for bed. I knew that telling her “no” would set her off into a tantrum. So, I looked at her in the eyes and said, “I hear you.”

That reaction didn’t shut her down, but it also didn’t make her more aggressive. She calmly pressed on.

“I want yogurt.”

“I hear you.”

“I want yogurt.”

“I hear you.”

She whimpered and laid down for bed.

As I walked out of her bedroom, I felt sad that I denied her wish. I also felt connected to her and knew that we both had grown emotionally through that interaction. My integrity was intact (sticking to dietary and sleep guidelines) and her integrity was intact (realizing she can’t manipulate people to always get what she wants). At the same time, we heard each other.

Connecting and Maintaining Integrity at Any Age

Here’s the thing: As we get older, that inner two-year-old is still within us. According to emotional intelligence researcher Daniel Goleman, trust and influence depend upon your ability to connect with someone’s inner two-year-old (their “primitive brain”).

I saw this play out in another interaction I had last week, this time at work. My colleague told me she wanted more compensation for her involvement in a project. I knew that telling her “no” would cause her to either shut down or get aggressive. I really appreciate this person, and I don’t want to let her down. At the same time, I knew the request wasn’t feasible. So, I said in a deliberate voice, “I hear you.”

That reaction didn’t make her happy and it didn’t make her upset. She calmly pressed on.

“I hear you. Tell me more about your thoughts on that.”

Even though I stayed with my position on the subject, I focused on the relationship. It would have been more efficient to skip the empathy and cut right to my rationale. I might have been able to back her off through my force of will. Every part of my own inner two-year-old wanted to either fight (argue) or flight (give in to unrealistic demands).

What saved me from those two ends of the spectrum was this phrase: I hear you.

Those words came in different variations:

That’s important.

I understand what you’re telling me.

This means a lot to you.

They are simple phrases designed to: 1) connect and 2) maintain integrity.

Connection and integrity in relationships are the foundation for growth and trust. We still might disagree, debate or negotiate, but we will be doing it from a position of strength.

We all still have a two-year-old inside us that demands, “I want!” Whether we are presenting the demand or responding to the demand, it’s a conflict of wills.

A simple, genuine, neutral phrase might avoid argument and unnecessary concession.

How well are you responding to the demands of people around you?

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