In my last blog post I wrote about the concept of mental flexibility, how it relates to executive function (EF), and gave some ideas for strategies you might use when working (or living) with someone who is not very flexible (mentally speaking).
Today I'd like to share my top three tips for a peaceful co-existence with your mentally inflexible student, child, spouse, friend, co-worker, boss, or parent. Please keep in mind that these tips come from my own personal experience, so they may or may not apply in your position. As with everything you read on the Internet - read with care, use what makes sense for you, ignore the rest!
Three Tips for Dealing with Mental Inflexibility
1. The more inflexible the person you are dealing with, the more flexible you must be.
Or, as Yoda might say, "Inflexible he is. Very flexible you must be." The biggest problems occur when a parent (or teacher, or boss) is dealing with someone who has EF deficits that are typified by inflexibility and that parent (teacher, boss, etc.) expects things to be done their way, no questions asked, no exceptions granted. This can be really tough for parents (personal experience here) who have set standards that may need to be put aside (just for awhile). For example, we have always insisted that our boys come to the dinner table properly dressed in a shirt with sleeves (no bare chests and no tank tops). After our son experienced his traumatic brain injury (TBI), we had many, many arguments (which escalated abruptly) about him wanting to wear a tank top to dinner. In retrospect, we had much bigger issues to deal with. We needed to be flexible in some of our demands, with the knowledge that we could always work on the tank top issue at a later date.
2. Keep in mind that anything you say will can, and will, be held against you
I was speaking with an educator recently who shared a story about a young lady with TBI who had been told that she could get a work permit once she attended school every day for a month. The young lady (let's call her Sally), excited to start work, attended every day for a month and then approached her teacher about the work permit. The teacher, aware of other issues in Sally's life that predicated a change in plans, explained to Sally that she would sign the work permit in a week or so, after she had a chance to meet with her transition worker. Sally responded by pointing out that she had come to school for the month, as directed. The teacher explained her reasoning again. Sally (in a significantly louder voice) repeated that she had done what she had been told to do. This went on for a few more minutes, with Sally becoming more angry and unreasonable as the conversation escalated. Finally, Sally said a few inappropriate words, threw a stack of papers on the floor, and stalked out of the classroom. In analyzing this situation, the problem started when the educator told Sally that she would sign the work permit if she attended school every day for a month. As this is a very specific time period, Sally fully expected that she would get her work permit once she kept her part of the bargain. When the teacher couldn't do what she had said she would do - even for very valid reasons - Sally felt as though she had been lied to. Sally's inflexibility in thinking resulted in a situation that quickly escalated out of control. The teacher may have avoided the unpleasant situation by originally stating that she was concerned about Sally's attendance and that they would discuss the work permit again once Sally had attended school regularly for a month. They could have then discussed the work permit and, if nothing else needed to be done, the teacher could have given Sally her permit. However, if there were other considerations, those could have been dealt with at that time.
3. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone who is mentally inflexible is the gift of reflection
Often people who are mentally inflexible will jump to a conclusion, or make a decision, without thinking through all angles, or considering all factors. When this happens, it can be very difficult for them to even consider the possibility that there might be other alternatives. In these situations, it can be helpful to reflect back on what they've decided, "OK, so you've decided that you are going to tell your boss that you're tired of having to clean the back room each Friday." Make sure that you reflect what they have said, and that you are using a respectful, approachable tone (beware of sarcasm as it will close down the conversation pretty quickly, and possibly quite unpleasantly). You might ask the person to imagine what will happen if they go with that idea (this might be a good time to talk about intended and unintended consequences). Then ask if you might help with thinking of some other ideas that could work as well. I've used the line, "That might be the best idea, but what if we try and think of three other ideas that could also work?" I've found that writing the ideas down can help in keeping things straight. A whiteboard is great for this, and can be a fun alternative to paper and pencil.
I know that it can be a challenge to remain calm and focused when you are trying to help someone else become more flexible in their thinking. What I've learned to do is to be as flexible as possible myself in as many situations as I can. I have to ask myself often, "Is this my hill to die on?" If the answer is no, then I have to let it go. Believe me, there are some situations that are not negotiable (wearing a seat belt in the car, for instance), but because those situations are few and far between, I've found that compliance is much more consistent (and less painful).
The good news is that the use of great strategies, like those you'll find in FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills, can help a person become more mentally flexible. The strategies shared in the book can minimize conflict and maximize effectiveness, when working or living with someone who struggles in the area of executive functioning. Next week, check back for some strategies for dealing with someone who tends to be overly emotional. Until then, stay flexible!