Communication Lessons from a Three Year Old

Dana Brownlee

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Communication Lessons from a Three Year Old
(What We Should Have Learned About Communicating in Preschool)

A few months ago I attended an observation at my daughter's Montessori school. Ostensibly, each child was supposed to take their parent around the room giving them "lessons" in various areas. I wasn't sure what to expect exactly - after all my daughter was mastering pouring and hand washing so I wasn't expecting much to be completely honest. What I received on the other hand was truly a life lesson!

As I sat at the table and my daughter showed me how she folded her napkins, another little boy walked towards our table. I noticed him and as soon as I painted on a smile to say "hi there little fella!" my daughter looked him straight in the eye and said politely but certainly firmly "William, I'm working now. Please walk away." AND HE DID! I was floored to say the least. First, that this was the same child that I enrolled in speech therapy just a year earlier (I digress), but most importantly because she displayed such specificity and poise as she communicated her authentic needs at the moment by owning her space and clarifying her boundaries without hesitation. Equally impressive was that he immediately understood the messaging and respected the request without pushing back, becoming emotional, or escalating the situation. As a consultant regularly working with leaders and teams to improve internal communications, build trust, and increase productivity and morale, I couldn't help but think, "Why can't adults do this???" Somewhere along the way we lost the ability to be direct but respectful - protect our personal space without alienating others - define personal boundaries without building walls of distrust. More often what I find is that as adults (particularly women in my experience), we tend to opt for a less effective communication approach that often brings includes its own host of ugly consequences.

Classic analogous situations that I encounter when working with clients might include a team member frustrated by their boss who is contacting them outside work hours/while on vacation expecting them to continue working or (even closer to my daughter's scenario), team members working in a cubical environment who are frustrated by constant interruptions from other team members who regularly show up in their space unannounced with a "quick" question. Instead, of using this type of direct, specific feedback, very often we (particularly women in my experience) tend to opt for a less direct, easier to muster alternate approach which often brings its own host of consequences.

Typical Alternate Approaches and Consequences
Say nothing - With this approach you're essentially not addressing the issue in an attempt to avoid any potential conflict. It's safe but certainly not effective. In the workplace silence often implies consent and that can be quite dangerous. If Sally is used to dropping by your desk to chat after she's grabbed her morning coffee and you entertain that, you're actually encouraging the behavior. Then four months later after you've reached your boiling point and you DO say something to her, you may very well overreact entirely because you're not just frustrated with today's interruption but months of interruptions.

Instead, consider saying something like this: "Sally, I'm doing great! I so wish that I could chat right now, but I've put myself on a strict "appointment only" schedule since my workload is so heavy. If you need to meet with me, would you mind emailing me so that we can set something up?"
(If that doesn't work, put a whiteboard outside your cube indicating when you're available for interruption and when you're not.)

Another obvious problem with this approach is that you're not clarifying your boundaries. When we don't clarify our boundaries as soon as someone violates them, we essentially allow others to define them for us. This is a dangerous practice because oftentimes the new boundaries then become reinforced over time by our silence/inaction. So similarly when your boss regularly emails you requests while you're home sick or on vacation and you promptly respond, you're indeed encouraging the behavior and creating expectations. Clearly, this is not the desired result.


    Send vague and/or confusing messaging - With this approach we say something just not what we really want to say. Unfortunately, this can backfire immensely! For example, if you tell Sally that you can't talk right now because you've got to run to a meeting, and she later notices you still sitting at your desk, she will certainly question why you were dishonest. Or if you tell her that you've got to run to a meeting, but you'd definitely like to chat later - she will likely come back!!!


Indeed, my 3 year old had developed a skill that most adults struggle with daily. Direct, clear statements among colleagues is key to not just communicating clearly but also to building strong, healthy, respectful relationships. The next time you need to stand up for yourself in the workplace, ensure that your communication meets the following criteria.

Are you being...
  • Direct
  • Clear
  • Firm
  • Respectful
  • Unwavering
  • Honest

    Certainly, pick your battles. Some issues you'll choose to let slide, but when it comes to setting your boundaries in the workplace, seize the opportunity! They just may respect you for it!

    Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com.
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