Great Ways to Sabotage a Good Conversation

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9780972017800: Great Ways to Sabotage a Good Conversation
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Dr. Schenk’s book is like having a good conversation with a psychologist who knows how to provide practical insights into "language traps" and other conversational pitfalls that interfere with good communication. Each of the nine chapters presents one or two ways of shooting yourself in the foot, linguistically speaking. With the skill of a seasoned clinician, Dr. Schenk’s common sense writing style makes it easy to understand how these words and phrases sabotage what you are wanting to convey. Then he offers simple, effective ways to avoid that particular language trap in everyday life situations. His creative use of cartoon illustrations from such strips as Zits®, Baby Blues® and Calvin and Hobbes® adds a delightful touch of humor to the book. Who would have thought that improving relationships could be this much fun?

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About the Author:

Dr. Paul W. Schenk earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Baylor University in 1978, one of the first graduate schools in the country to offer the Doctor of Psychology degree (Psy.D.) He provides psychotherapy for individuals (children/teens/adults), couples and families, and conducts seminars and workshops for lay and professional groups. His articles have appeared in magazines and professional journals in the US and England. Professional memberships include the American Psychological Association, the Georgia Psychological Association (Fellow), the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, and the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (Approved Consultant). Dr. Schenk maintains a private practice in Atlanta.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

7:30 A.M. "Susan, don't forget to bring home your science book this afternoon. John, hurry up so you won’t be late for the bus. Emily, stop running." Sound familiar? These reminders, and countless others like them, are echoed by conscientious parents in millions of homes across America every day. Every one of them comes with the good intention of helping a child avoid a problem. So why is it that Susan is still likely to forget her science book despite the reminder?

The answer lies in the way that our brains listen to spoken language. Let me demonstrate. Imagine that I say to you, "Don't think about your left thumb." In order to understand what you just heard, the first thing you have to do is the one exact thing I just asked you not to do: think about your thumb! Of the millions of thoughts you could have had after my instruction, the very first one you had to have in order to understand what I said was the only thought that I didn't want you to have. Why? The brain is incapable of generating a picture of "don't." It cannot create a picture of what it is not thinking about. It can only create images of what it is thinking about at the moment. Like those round highway warning signs with the red diagonal line through them, the word "don't" first tells the brain to create an image of the thing you are not supposed to do. Only then can it put the verbal equivalent of that red diagonal line over the idea. But even then the picture in your head is still of the one thing you were not supposed to think about. Welcome to your first language trap. (Don’t think about going back to read the introduction to the book before you continue reading this chapter.)

The real message that the brain hears from those original instructions is akin to the way children sometimes talk: Forget your science book – not. Be late for the bus – not. Run – not. Each time your child listens, the image that her brain forms is the exact opposite of what you want. Fortunately, the solution is quite simple. Instead of saying what you don’t want, say what you do want: "Susan, remember to bring home your science book today. John, please get to the bus stop on time. Emily, please walk."

It's not that words like "don’t" and "stop" don't have their usefulness. They do. They are very helpful in identifying for your child the exact behavior which you want her to change or avoid. For example, "Don’t touch the stove. It’s hot." However, teaching safety and good social skills involves communicating alternatives as well. For example, no one would argue with the importance of teaching a young child, "Don't run into the street. You might get hit by a car." However, it is equally important to teach children how to deal safely with traffic. To do this, a parent can follow the earlier caution with, "Please hold my hand while we look both ways so we can cross the street safely." After focusing on what not to do, the parent tells the child what she wants him to do.

In my clinical work, I find that when parents begin to practice this simple language change, they often get tongue-tied for awhile. I suspect this is because with our busy lifestyles, much of the parenting that we do feels like putting out brush fires. "Tim, please stop bothering your sister. Janie, stop whining." Unfortunately, these interventions often only add fuel to the fires. Tim’s brain just heard his mother say, "Please bother your sister – not." Janie's brain heard her father say, "Whine – not." For many parents, the ease of figuring out an alternative behavior that they can live with seems inversely proportional to how tired they are. It is easy to identify annoying behavior. But sometimes I find that parents get momentarily tongue-tied searching for what to say next. Some behaviors have opposites which are easy to articulate. For example, "Don’t run. Please walk." But what is the verbal opposite of whining? Sometimes I have to settle for an approximation such as, "Janie, please talk to me in a nicer tone of voice."

It is one thing to agree that this simple change makes sense. However, it is quite another thing to actually implement it. This is because people stop noticing behaviors which have become habits. It is difficult to change what you say if you don't even notice that you are saying it. The first step is to train your ear to notice words like "don’t" and "not." This is easier to do with someone else’s language than your own. I find that a fun and easy way to do this is to sit with your child or teenager while he watches a program like Rug Rats or Malcolm in the Middle. Listen to how the adults talk to the children (or even other adults.) Notice how many times you can catch words like "don’t." Then, just for fun, notice the outcome of each of those "don’ts."

When you begin to catch your own use of "don’t," be gentle with yourself. After all, you’ve probably had years of role modeling from your own parents, plus your own years of practice. When you catch a "don’t," just follow it with what you do want your child to do. For example, "Jason, don’t forget your lunch money. Please be sure it’s in your lunch bag." Remember, the goal is not (did I say "not"?) to eliminate the use of such words, only to be sure that you also clearly convey what you do want your child to do.

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