Do we ask a potential hire what their parents told them when they spilled milk?

It wasn’t Sigmund Freud, but the 19th century poet William Wordsworth who said, The child is the father of man. But Freud, of course, would have agreed in that he argued that most, if not all, of the foundation for who we are as adults is cast in the first five years.

So, what are we to make of this? Are we stuck with our pre-verbal responses to authority, to failure, to success, formed long before we have conscious memory or control? After all, most of us neither remember nor had any say-so over what happened to us when we spilled our milk, refused to be potty trained, tried to please our parents, or told an untruth.

Still, one tenet of psychology is that to understand who we are today, we must understand who we have been. What shaped us to respond so viscerally to criticism and praise, to be driven to achieve or content to do little, to be fiercely independent or reliant on others?

This is where cognitive behavioral psychology makes it debut.

The idea is simple. We tune-in to what we are saying to ourselves in the moment, when we feel unfairly criticized, unappreciated, inadequate, excluded, reviled. When we do, chances are we will actually hear those old messages programmed into our operating systems, long before we had choice.

Generally our parents had no bad intent. They were just coping according to what they knew. But whatever our parents, families, and early teachers told us, however we were treated in our daily life as toddlers lives large in our adult lives. It just remains slightly outside awareness. When our internal “self-talk” is positive we thrive; when it invalidates we struggle, often clueless as to why.

Cognitive behavioral psychology puts choice back into the game. When we are criticized, we can stop and catch our first reactions as they are happening. That means listening to and hearing what we are saying to ourselves. That act alone is worth the price of admission. Consider:

  • Criticism: “What right does she have to criticize me?” “I can never  do anything right.” “Why even bother to try?” “I’m going to get even with that *****.”  “I’ll show them what’s bad!” “They’ll be sorry!”
  • Unappreciated: “No one ever cares about me.” “What’s the point of trying to do anything around here?” “I hate them.”
  • Inadequate: “I’ll never amount to anything.” “I’m so hopeless.”  “Everyone knows I don’t have what it takes.” “I’m never coming back here.”

None of the above leads to positive outcomes. So, what to do?

The idea is that when we catch ourselves repeating these dysfunctional, programmed messages, we also begin to understand that it isn’t mom or dad doing this to us. It is us doing this to us.  That is something we can change. We can think about how we want to feel. If what we are saying doesn’t align, we change it. We have the ability to turn any old, unquestioned response into a positive statement that opens new possibilities. We can decide to talk to ourselves in wiser and more functional ways, for example:

  • Criticism: “She is trying to help me, even if it doesn’t feel good right now.” “There’s a pony in here somewhere” (meaning, “There could be something to learn here, so I need to ask for more feedback).” “I want to improve.” “I am going to learn what I need and give it another try.” “I’ll show them I can do this right.” “They’ll be surprised how fast I turn this around.”
  • Unappreciated: “I can ask them for more positive feedback.” “I need to make sure they know all the good things I am doing.” “I want to work somewhere that recognizes their people.”
  • Inadequate: “Everyone makes mistakes.” “This is an opportunity to improve.” “I don’t have to be the best, so long as I do my job.” I am a good and decent person with a lot of performance anxiety.”  “Everyone needs help now and then.”

The result of saying positive things to ourselves is that we short-circuit those old parental messages that hold us hostage. By reacting differently in the service of who we want to become, we create wholly new possibilities for ourselves and for those around us.

We end up rewriting, not the past, but the future.

Language, it turns out, is far more than the mirror of thought. By changing our language, we actually retrain ourselves to think differently.

So, now to the question:  Do we ask a potential hire what their parents told them when they spilled milk?


Some candidates still may be held hostage by their parents’ dysfunctional teachings. But some may have moved on. Some figure out how to transcend those early messages, on their own or with help, at least some of the time. Some are unwittingly frozen in time.

How to differentiate?  Ask candidates questions that tap present and future states and that uncover their current language and thinking around undue sensitivity to criticism, feeling unappreciated, etc. today. Consider these behavioral interview questions as examples:

  • Criticism: Tell us about the last time you felt unfairly criticized by a boss or peer? What happened? What did you do? What was the result? What did you learn from this experience?
  • Unappreciated: You are supervising an employee who can’t seem to do anything right. In her performance review, she says, that the reason she is performing below standard is that you never reward or appreciate her for what she does accomplish. That is hurting her motivation. How do you respond to her? To what extent do you see this as a valid response on her part? What should she do differently?
  • Inadequate: Think of a time when what you were working hard to accomplish didn’t turn out as you expected. Tell me about it. What did you learn from the experience? What did you/would you do differently next time?

If there is true dysfunction, the person will reveal it, to some degree telling their perspectives, old internal messages, parental dictates, and the degree to which they are still held captive by them. Then you can decide whether their perspectives fit the positive upbeat feedback rich culture you are creating. Remember that the beauty of the cognitive behavioral approach is that it underscores and proves that we all have choice, right now. Today.

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This post is a slightly edited version of a note to PeterD and an IntelliVen client CEO by Dr. Dory Hollander in response to the title question asked by our common client. Her advice proved, as usual, to be invaluable and worth sharing so readers might benefit.


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