What Is Fair and Reasonable

November 21, 2011
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Jacob is a boy in our neighborhood who, quite frankly, can be a pain in the . . . harmony of my home life. He invades our garage (personal space, anyone?), spits constantly, and asks a LOT of questions. I'll bet that you have a “Jacob” in your neighborhood too. He asked me what my name was the other day. I, for one, do not appreciate little kids calling me by my first name. Yes, I know, I'm “old school.” I told him that he could call me Mr. Lonigro. He replied by asking, “Yeah, but what's your REAL name?” Cute kid. Ignoring the challenging question, I stated that he could either call me “Mr. Lonigro” or “Mr. Dan.” I then asked him if that was fair. “Yes, Mr. Lonigro, that's fair,” was his reply. Either choice was fine by me, but I got the desired result: a de-escalation in his behavior.

One of the discussions I have with groups that we train is about reasonable limit setting. I've always presented my interpretation of “reasonable” as what is fair. If you look up “reasonable” in a thesaurus, you will find “fair” as a synonym. If I ask a student to do some work and they refuse, it would not be fair for me to give them a negative choice of reading War and Peace in one evening and then writing a fifty-page dissertation about it for submission the very next day. A more reasonable choice to offer them would be that they do the work now or during recess.

The problem is that what may seem reasonable to us may not be reasonable or fair to the person we are setting limits with. So how does one know whether one is being fair or not? I always encourage our participants to literally ask the person they are setting limits with whether or not they are being fair. As in: “Lisa, you can either do your work now or during recess. Is that fair?”

One benefit of this approach is that it shows empathy, and empathy can have a calming effect on people. This approach allows them to think more rationally and make better, more rational choices. Another benefit is that it is a confirmation for the limit setter that they are, indeed, being reasonable with their limit setting, and reasonableness, as we all know, is one of the keys to setting limits. If the student says, “Yes, that sounds fair,” then the limit setter knows that that key is in place. If the reply is that the choices and consequences are not fair, then we can simply ask the person for their input on what would be fair. Nine times out of ten, they will probably give you something that you find reasonable too.

Please remember that the goal of limit setting is not necessarily to get people to comply. The goal of limit setting is to de-escalate behavior. Having people comply is a nice residual benefit, but it should not be our goal because if it is, and they choose the noncompliant choice, we could get frustrated and lose our Rational Detachment.

So, I strongly encourage all of you to ask if you are being fair whenever you set limits. Watch the response. I think you'll like what you see and hear.

Also, I recently conducted the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program in sunny California. When I had some free time, I took a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica to Malibu. What a drive! If you’re ever in that part of the world, I encourage you to make the drive. Ocean on one side and multimillion dollar houses on the other. Click Play in the player below to see a brief video report of my spectacular view.



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