The next time you’re dealing with a challenging situation at work, home or even with yourself, look for the unconscious patterns you and others may be running and find ways to work with them, rather than taking them on directly.

I had just moved in with my then-girlfriend, Jennifer, and her 4 year old daughter, Lilly (I changed their names to protect their privacy). Lilly was (and is) a great kid. With Jennifer guiding both of us in how to navigate this new relationship, Lilly took to me as she would to a new playmate: we played games, I took her to the park, picked her up from school, helped her explore the world, took her to museums and generally was pretty fun to be around (if I do say so, myself). In fact, she once looked up at me from a bowl of ice cream and, very matter-of-factly announced, “Mitch, you’re the silliest silly.”

To this day, that’s probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. I mean, what could be better than the honest assessment of a four year old?

Jennifer is one of the best mothers I’ve ever known, and I’ve coached many. In fact, I learned a lot from her that has helped me to coach other mothers, particularly divorced mothers. That said, it didn’t take long living together before I noticed that a nightly battle was occurring between Lilly and Jennifer.

Lilly loved the bathtub. Playing with her toys, imagining expeditions across oceans, Smurfs, pirates and somehow, a fireman, Lilly could spend quite a bit of time in there. In fact, getting her out of the tub was a lot harder than getting her in. Washing also was ok.

But washing hair, now THAT was another story. Getting Lilly to agree to have her hair washed was like the proverbial, “pulling teeth.”

Night after night, this Battle Royale would occur. Everything was great until the moment when Jennifer would proclaim, “time to wash your hair, Lilly.”

And then it would begin. Even before that moment, really. I could see the sheer anticipation of the event as it approached causing Lilly to avoid eye contact with her mother. And then came the crying, the resistance, the “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

Seeing this situation, and straight out of my first several months of studying the mind (this was 9 years ago), with probably a bit too much confidence and most assuredly, no experience, I said, “let me try.”

“Be my guest,” said Jennifer.

A few minutes later, I exited the bathroom, triumphant, Lilly’s hair crystal clean. No shouting, crying or even resistance. Plenty of laughter.

I received an edgy response: “Beginner’s luck,” said Jennifer.

I was rather proud of what I thought was my great skill. I’d proven I could accomplish a difficult parenting task with a small child. I thought about how effective I’d been in applying what I had learned.

However, recently, I realized something: although what I’d learned may have played some role, it really had less to do with my alleged “skill” (if it was that, at all) and more to do with what Jennifer said, being a “beginner.” In other words, as someone different, I represented “novelty” to Lilly. I’ll explain . . .

Here’s what I think really happened: Like all of us (which is the reason for this article), Lilly was running an unconscious neural pattern (think of it as a computer program):

  1. Mom says time to wash hair.
  2. I recall last time Mom washed my hair and 
  3. Shampoo got in my eyes
  4. my eyes burned, which hurts,
  5. I cried.

Lesson learned: Every time Mom says time to wash hair, I resist and cry in order to AVOID what I don’t want (burning eyes). I get what I want, which is no burning sensation in eyes (note: its not to avoid washing hair, its to avoid an unpleasant experience, which happens to result from washing hair and the resultant shampoo in eyes). Therefore, when Mom says, “time to wash hair,” my coping mechanism (avoidance pattern) to get what I want is to resist and cry. Let’s break this down: what are the two conditions that trigger resistance and crying? 

  1. Mom
  2. Says wash hair

Simple pattern, right?

But what happens when the pattern is different?

  1. Mitch (who is playful and “silly”)
  2. Says wash hair

The first required condition of the pattern is not met; so it is not triggered and thus, there is no resistance.

The pattern is not the same.

And now, we’ve washed hair, there was no soap in eyes, no burning sensation and no crying. I (Lilly) feel safe and don’t resist any longer.

Let’s look at what happened here:

The non-sameness was that it wasn’t Mom, but Mitch.

Mitch is new (novelty).

Mitch is fun, not an authority figure (ie, not a parent).

Now, there was a little more to it. Rather than telling Lilly it was time to wash her hair, I made the point that (just maybe) unconsciously resonated with Lilly. Working WITH her, rather than against her, here’s how I intended her to receive it:

Mitch doesn’t like when his hair is itchy and dirty. He likes clean hair. I agree; I like that, too (hypnotic suggestion. Note: I (Mitch) didn’t say, “you don’t like . . . “, which is a leading statement and an imposition of my will; I expressed how I feel. That left the door open for her to explore her own feelings about the matter, even if that was unconsciously).

(Maybe I told her I liked when a Smurf washed my hair and asked if she’d like that, too; I don’t recall, but it sounds good).

Mitch is fun.

I know, I’m back-patting. But its true. As proof, Lilly subsequently elevated my title from the “silliest silly” to the “King of the Sillies.”

I must admit this may well have been for Lilly’s somewhat self-serving purposes . . . If I was the “King of the Sillies,” she could name herself “Princess Silly” . . . I mean, what 4 year old girl wouldn’t want THAT title?

So the next time you find yourself in a challenging situation at work or home, you can change a pattern by applying empathy (understanding and feeling how and why a person feels as they do and the pattern they might be running) and skillful means. Ask yourself:

1. What might this person (or I) be trying to avoid and why?

2. How might I persuade the other person (or myself) by working with their (my) concerns and feelings, rather than resisting them?

But don’t believe a word I say. Try it for yourself and see if it works for you.