Communication Lessons from a Toddler

January 8, 2020

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Toddlers are some the fiercest negotiators I have ever met. To all my parents, aunts, uncles, future parents, grandparents, or anyone that has ever interacted with young kids, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Their stubbornness, willpower, and tenacity cannot be touched and I for one have become a stronger communicator since having children. I hope these lessons will be of help to you and your team and give you a few laughs along the way.

After my 3rd “negotiation” with my toddler on whether or not she could have chocolate, my 2nd “persuasive conversation” trying to convince her to use the potty, my hundredth time “telling” her that she could not watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse right now, and my thousandth time “pleading” with her to get in the bath, I sat down exhausted, frustrated, and if I’m being honest, fairly helpless. I took a few deep breaths, grabbed myself a kombucha (because they make everything better), and tried to figure out how on earth to communicate better with my toddler before we both lost our minds. In the midst of my meltdown, the following questions came to the surface:

  • What needs to happen for the two of us to understand one another?
  • How can I use these moments to connect with her rather then get myself worked up and, in turn, get her upset as well?

What I discovered during this reflection are tools that I believe are applicable not just for toddler communication, but for your team, your friends, your significant other, and really anyone you wish to develop a strong relationship.

And with that I present: Communication Strategies to Help You Be a Better Leader (as learned from a toddler):

  • Be Direct. I hate saying no and disappointing people and it is no different with my little one. However, what I find is that if I don’t give her a direct no, she will keep asking me the same question. Toddlers don’t understand passive aggressive language like, “I don’t think that’s a good idea right now.” She has no clue what I mean when I say that, but she does understand NO. The same applies to your team members. If you don’t deliver a clear yes or no, they are more likely to come up with their own ideas or not comply at all. With this new generation of workers, it is more important than ever to give direct information to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Don’t be afraid to actually “say what you mean,” you’ll be astonished at how much more gets done!
  • Take Care of Your Own Well-Being. I work hard to keep my patience in tact with my girls (which is not easy!), but I find that this is especially hard if I’m not taking care of myself. Just like toddlers are prone to meltdowns if they are tired, hungry, or thirsty, adults are no exception. We must take care of ourselves if we want to take care of others. When I am not feeling my best, I make sure to acknowledge that feeling going into my workday and have a list of strategies to re-energize and focus me. For example, I love to meditate and read the Bible. Also, if I need to have a difficult conversation with someone I may journal a bit first to help me get my thoughts in order and many times, I reach for my favorite caffeinated beverage, a chai tea latte from Starbucks. Taking time for 5-10 minutes of self-care can dramatically improve my ability to communicate with others effectively. What are the things that you can do to get yourself mentally and physically set up for success? Write them down in a notes section on your phone or on a post it note by your workspace so that you can refer back to them often. (If you’re not sure, contact me and we can come up with a plan for you!)
  • It’s NOT Personal. Agh this is a hard one, but it’s so important to remember! Your toddler is not out to ruin your life. They are trying to figure out how to navigate this world and want your guidance, direction, and unconditional support. Similarly, your team members are typically not out to hurt you. They bring all kinds of things with them to work….. sick family members, financial stress, health issues, sleepless nights, you name it. When they don’t perform their best at work, it’s often due to other things going on in their lives, not you personally. And, if for some reason it is due to you, bringing your personal feelings into it will make the situation harder not easier. As someone that is a very “feeling” person and has a lot empathy for others I have to work hard at this one. Something that I find helpful when dealing with an emotional situation with an employee is writing down the facts of the situation on one side of a piece of paper and the employees’ feelings on the other side. This gives me an objective way to look at events and provides clarity to help resolve the issue.
  • Keep it Simple. Toddlers do well with short and sweet directions. “Put your shoes on.” “Give your sister a kiss on the head not on the face.” Team members are similar. The more complicated your directions, the harder they are to follow. Review your company policies and procedures at least yearly and ensure that things are easy to understand. When working through a complex problem have someone recap conclusions and critical next steps at the end of the meeting rather than simply assuming everyone is on the same page. Use phrases like “What I heard you say is …….., is that correct?” This can make a huge difference in building and creating a cohesive team/relationship.
  • Redirect in tense situations. When my toddler is having a complete meltdown we often ask her a question about something unrelated to the situation. What do you think your sister is doing right now?” “What do you want for lunch?” The sky is the limit! When I know that a team member is coming in to meet with me and is really upset about something, I often spend the first 10 -15 minutes talking to them about unrelated things that are positive. I talk to them about another team member we have seen doing a good job, a client that is excelling, their family, a hobby, anything to get them to feel at ease. Oftentimes, the conversation goes much better when we’ve connected on something positive and maybe even laughed a little before addressing the “tough stuff.” (*Note to add that sometimes a conversation needs to be strictly serious and I trust that you as the expert know when this needs to be done instead)

I often smile to myself when I hear my colleagues talking about a ‘difficult employee’ or a ‘client they can’t seem to reach.’ I think to myself “you haven’t seen difficult, until you’ve seen a toddler not wanting to get in her car seat!” Essentially, if you can convince a toddler to eat broccoli, skip dessert, rinse the shampoo completely out of their hair, and go to bed early then your job should really be working for the United Nations because your communication skills are ready to serve the world!

In the age of technology, abbreviations, and GIFs, strong communication skills are getting put on the back burner and it is hurting culture and performance. Communication is one of the most important skills for leaders and it’s time we put it back at the forefront of our leadership training. Toddlers serve as a great reminder of how communication can quickly fail if not understood, nurtured, and practiced and I encourage you to try these things out at home and at work. And, if you really want to check your skills out, you are welcome to borrow my 2 year old!


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I'm Lauren - the kick in the butt BFF that you never knew you always wanted 

I believe in embracing the messiness of life with authenticity, laughter, tenacity, and a glass of lemonade.  I believe that when the mind and body align the heart becomes unstoppable and I can't wait to help you achieved every single wild dream and then some!  Cheers to making lemonade together!

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