Recently, a client shared a story about his daughter that I think perfectly illustrates how good therapists, managers, and parents can understand the communications of their clients, employees, and children.
My client’s daughter (4) told her parents that she needed to use the potty before going to bed, so they took her to the bathroom and waited for a few minutes, but nothing happened. My client, the father, said he then attempted to “triage” the situation. He wanted to know: “Do you have to go?” “Did you have a feeling that you had to go?” “What made you think you had to go?” “Are you nervous?” “Are you excited?” “Is there any pain?” “How does your stomach feel?” But none of these questions was able to clarify or resolve the issue.
After a few more minutes of this questioning, my client’s wife asked the daughter: “Do you want a hug?” The child nodded her head, gave her mother and father a hug, and went to sleep.
My client raised this story as an example of the type of way he would like to grow. We could put many labels on this, but for now we’ll call it emotional intelligence, which I would define as the ability to understand and then resolve a person’s emotional needs. What makes this so difficult is that very few people—whether adult or child, family or stranger, coworker or friend—make emotional demands explicitly. Everybody, in every stage of life and in every relationship dynamic possible, disguises their emotional needs.
Think about an emotional need of yours that is not being met in a certain relationship. Now determine whether you have asked for this to be resolved explicitly. If you haven’t, why not? If you have, what made it possible?
On the surface, my client’s daughter said she had to use the bathroom, so her parents took her to the bathroom. But soon it became obvious that she didn’t have to go. So what was she really asking for? I think the hug gives us our answer: she was looking for love, praise, recognition. And it is not a surprise that she thought of the bathroom, because to successfully “go potty” is an act that often draws great praise from parents. That she didn’t have use the bathroom was not important—she recognized it as a place, or an activity, where she could “do a good job.” And that’s probably all she needed.