Be a Thermostat, Not a Thermometer

This past week a lot of us spent time looking at the thermometer because it was hot as all billy-be-damned here in NYC.  And what I noticed is, the more I focused on the temperature, the more my temperature seemed to rise to meet it. Which got me to thinking about the importance of being a thermostat, not a thermometer, when dealing with someone who doesn’t want to deal with you.

As some of you know, I began my checkered career as a nursery school teacher. One of the many valuable tools I learned there is the importance of keeping my equilibrium when coping with a small person hell bent on having a temper tantrum.

If you’ve had kids (or spent any time in the checkout line at a grocery store) you know that part of the job of a three-year-old is testing limits—hence, the endless, “Why?” and “No!” What you may also recall is how easily they drop their cross-questioning and power tripping when those ploys are met with equilibrium and good humor.

Is this easy to do? Absolutely not. Is it possible? It is. How is it possible? My personal formula with the small folk is: take a deep breath, open eyes and mouth as wide as I can, and say—with cartoon levels of flabbergast—“What is this crazy talk?”

Why does this work? It works because in these moments their “expression of their identity” (as the child psych books call it You might have another name for it…) is very rarely that attached to what they are lobbying for. What they are looking for is any reaction. They don’t care how you engage with them, as long as you do engage with them. How you engage is—as always– up to you.

“Well, isn’t that’s sweet,” you may be thinking, “but I’m not dealing with a three-year-old, I am dealing with my boss/my client/my teenager and I don’t think you’re happy-clappy-talk is going to work with them.”

Don’t be so sure.

Roger Ailes’ terrific book (love him or hate him, it’s a terrific book) “You Are the Message” is where I got the phrase, “Be a thermostat and not a thermometer.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the ‘temperature’ is of the person you’re dealing with—they may well be furious—but you need to remain at 70 degrees and sunny. Because even if ratcheting up your crazy to match their crazy feels good in the moment—and you get your way by doing so– you will likely end up feeling badly about it later on and/or alienating the person you’re dealing with.

Because, as Eldridge Cleaver said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”

Three tools I’ve also found super-helpful to being a thermostat are:

  1. Regardless of their age, most people just want to know they have your attention.  Given this, I’ve found repeating, “I’m listening.” And “Tell me more,” is helpful.
  2. When you can get a word in edgewise, inhale then speak on an exhalation. This will both calm you down and give your voice resonance and authority.
  3. When the other person is calm enough, offer him or her a glass of water (and drink a glass yourself.) The act of drinking forces people to pause, swallow… essentially gets their soul back in their body. Not to mention that sharing this very human activity reminds everybody of their shared humanity.

I look forward to your thoughts.


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