Matthew J. Zakreski, PsyD
1. Use meta-communication. I love this point because it sounds SO NERDY. Talking about talking? The prefix meta?! ::Groan:: Nerdiness aside, however, I have found that adding these conversational techniques into our daily communication increases understanding, empathy, and success in difficult interactions.
Meta-communication is talking about talking. To me, it is using verbal introductions and explanations to give context to what is happening within the conversation (and, often, in the relationship). Meta-communication techniques can help us join with others more easily and get out points across more clearly. While it is a whole style of speaking (if you’ve ever seen me speak in person, you’ve certainly heard me practicing it), I’m going to focus on three specific skills: 1) asking to talk, 2) “verbing” your expressions, and 3) building time.
Why does meta-communication work? When we engage someone else in a conversation, we know more than the other person does. You know that you’re hungry; you have known it since you wolfed down that cheese Danish at 9:15am in the breakroom. However, we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else knows or feels what we do, and thus set ourselves up for miscommunication and misunderstandings. Because no one else knows that you didn’t have a proper breakfast (and they all treated themselves to Dunkin, those lucky jerks), your sudden declaration of “I need some lunch right now!!!” comes across as jarring, if not weird. It comes across as socially strange because no one else has been thinking about your lunch as much as you have, so the intensity of your argument seems to come from left field. We will replay this conversation using all three of the meta-communication techniques to see how using these skills can enhance our points.
- “Asking to talk.” Asking to talk is a powerful skill. So often we engage in conversations without really listening; we just wait to talk. People usually talk to us because they are asking for support and empathy, not advice or similar stories (because they inevitably sound like one-upping). When someone is talking to you and you have a point to make, instead of butting in (“intercepting the conversational football” as one of my clients says), ask to talk. By doing so, you show your conversation partners that you value their story and want to play a part in it, but on their terms. The key is to really mean the fact that you are asking. If the task feels pro forma, people won’t appreciate it. So if you ask, really ask (not the mistake I describe in step #2); if they say no, let it go.
- Examples of this technique include, “Hey, do you mind if I add something?” “Are you open to a suggestion here?” “Are you looking for advice or do you just want to vent?”
- Regarding the situation above, you might say: “Hey guys, do you mind if I say something? I’m really hungry and I’m going to go to lunch if anyone is interested.”
- “Verbing” your expression. There are so many wonderful words in the English language! And “talk” is, to turn a phrase, cheap. In all honesty, we usually don’t need say that we are talking. We just talk. When we “verb” our sentences, however, we give needed context to what we are about to say and vital clues to our audience as to where we are coming from and what we are trying to accomplish with our suggestion. Using verbs to introduce what we are saying gives depth to our communication, which increases its effectiveness. The better the verb, the clearer the meaning. In short, don’t just talk… emote! Grumble! Hypothesize! Question! (And consult your thesaurus app for more)
- Examples of this technique include: “I’m wondering if…” “I’m concerned that….” “I’m curious about…”
- Regarding the situation above, you might say, “Hey guys, I’m wondering if anyone is hungry? I’m going to get lunch.”
- Building time. Adding the concept of time to what we are saying helps our audience understand us better, which increases the effectiveness of our communication. Building time into our communication gives more context to what we are saying, which allows our audience to regulate their emotional reactions and responses. You likely do parts of this technique now, with words such as “later” and “tomorrow.” We can make our communication even clearer, however, but making the concept of time more concrete and immediate, rather than vague and distal. It gives our audience time to think, which makes them feel better, which increases the chances that we get the response we want.
- Example of this technique include: “In about 10 minutes…” “After dinner, I…”. “This walk should talk about two hours…”
- Regarding the situation above, you might say, “Hey guys, in about 15 minutes, I’m going to head down to the cafeteria if anyone wants to come with me.”
- Meta-communication is a great way to clue other people in to what is going on in your head without giving them too much information. A little context goes a long way when trying to get your point across. When your point comes across clearly, you get the work done quickly and move on to the next task. If you find yourself saying often that “Why don’t they get where I am coming from?” or “Well they should’ve known that!”, then this technique is for you.
- Avoid “Should.” Should is a dangerous word in self-esteem, performance, mental health, and relationships. One of my colleagues says that the word “Should” is really an abbreviation of the words Shame and Could. So you take the infinite possibility of the word “could” (I could do this, we could do that, etc.) but add shame to it, so that possibility is couched in judgement. As a result, I don’t let my clients use “should” in therapy sessions. Like a lot of these techniques, I firmly believe that once you start listening for this word, you’ll be amazed how often it appears.
Everyone is guilty of using “should” in conversation, especially when we are upset. When we are upset, we focus more on our deficits and failures and move away from a problem-solving growth mindset. Since gifted kids are remarkably good at ruminating on negative events, we are going to focus on “should” usage that is commonly reported from children in areas of stress relevant to them. “Should” tends to show up in three areas in parenting/teaching gifted kids: 1) goals they wanted to reach, 2) negative social comparisons, and 3) when rules were not followed. I will spend some time in each of the next paragraphs to give examples and strategies to change our approach to these issues.
Allow me to traffic in a cliché for a moment. When I tell people that I work with gifted kids, a common response I get is the well-worn chestnut: “Oh, you mean the kids that freak out when they get a 99 instead of a 100?” Well, yes. And if you haven’t suffered from neurotic perfectionism, you have no idea how debilitating that feeling can be (yet another article idea! You all will be so sick of me!). Gifted kids often use “should” when complaining about not reaching a goal, academic or otherwise. When a gifted kid says, “Well, I should have gotten an A+” it is easy to get caught up in arguing about it. After all, what’s the real difference between a 98 and a 100?
When if we get stuck in whether there is a problem, we end up arguing about semantics. If we join with our students in their distress, we enable ourselves to better help them solve problems. I would suggest replying with: “It sounds like you feel like you could have done better. What could you have done differently?” Notice how we aren’t even using should. What could you have done differently forces our brains into problem-solving mode. Maybe we could have studied more, or harder (or at all). Maybe we had too much on our plates. Maybe we did everything that we could and just had bad luck. These responses all serve to move us forward.
Another area that gifted kids use “should” is in social comparison. These comparisons can either be positive or negative. A negative comparison that I hear often is that gifted kids will ignore their own positive characteristics to wish that they were more like another kid. “I should have a girlfriend like Sam!” “I should be in better shape; everyone else on my dance team is so skinny!” “I should be smart like Shannon; everyone says they are going to Harvard.”
These statements tend to elicit emotional reactions from us as we don’t want to see our kids in pain. Of course they are smart, skinny, and dateable. But we don’t want to dismiss their concerns, even if we are well-intentioned. Replacing “should” in this situation is about reframing the comparison in a positive way. What about them is good? What are their strengths? Why are they doing things differently (as opposed to worse) than their peers? Is there anything that they would like to change? If so, how do we do so? Help them move on.
Positive social comparisons often coincide with our third category: “should” usage around rules being not followed. Raise your (virtual) hand if your gifted kids have ever said, “Those other people [peers, students, etc.] should just be better behaved.” We have all felt that way at some point; it is a normal human reaction. But if we engage in social judgment, we leave ourselves open to a vital bias: we never know what other people know or what they are going through.
Rules exist and are meant to be followed. But we make expectations to them all the time! Have you ever jaywalked? Run a red light? Listened to illegally downloaded music? Called out in class? Of course we have! (Though, on consultation with my attorney friend from above, I will amend my answer to say “hypothetically.”) Whenever we break a rule, we immediately engage in rationalization to protect our choices: “I was running late.” “I knew the answer and no one else would have.” “The record companies make too much money anyway.” Rationalization behavior is designed to protect our egos from pain. We can do so because we know our whole stories; we are aware of the idiosyncrasies and context that justify our choices.
We fail to extend this seem empathetic courtesy to other people because we do not know their stories or context. It is easy to judge rule-breaking behavior on the surface as something that someone “should” have known or done better. But do we really know what happened? Do we know for sure what that person was taught or not taught, or can or can’t do? If a student with ADHD cannot regulate himself in class and calls out, we don’t mind as much. If a student from a Montessori school comes to a traditional public school and gets up in the middle of history class to go do art, we try to consider context. The point is this: When we reframe another person’s behavior as what they could do, rather than what they should do, we open ourselves to empathy. Gifted kids, who can struggle with perspective taking, may struggle with having the intrinsic version of this skill, so we can use this language to help teach them.
We can also use this language to aid our parenting/teaching techniques. I once had a family in session and they were very upset that their 2e daughter had “acted out” at a family funeral: singing and doing math problems on her calculator. “She should have known better!” They wailed. I think that you can probably guess where this is going. Should she have? Had they ever taken the time to explain to her what the rules of funerals were? Um, no. Had they explored their own feelings over the loss? Um, no. Had they checked to see if she had any electronics before bringing them in? Who has the time?!
When our initial response as teachers and parents is that a kid “should” be doing something or know something, I implore you to take that statement as an opportunity to reflect. Perhaps they did know the expectations and made a poor choice. But perhaps they did not actually know (or needed to be reminded) the rules. “Should” comes from a place of judgement; when we approve feedback situations from a place of judgement, we get oppositional and upset kids. Instead of using should, try to be curious and collaborative; engage in a dialogue about the rules and what the students know and don’t know. When you find areas of less knowledge or skill, take that time to educate the student. I am confident that you will get far better results.
In summation, continued use of “should” can contribute to significant distress inside and outside of the classroom. Replacing this word with more positive terms and approaching can contribute to more emotional regulation and more resilience. It’s something you could try today.
(Bonus!) The power of “that sucks.” I’m a big fan of the TV show Parks and Recreation. In one of the later episodes, Chris Trager (played by the indomitable Rob Lowe) is trying to meet every single possible need of his very pregnant girlfriend Ann Perkins (played by the fabulous Rashida Jones). He makes smoothies, rubs her feet, and basically takes care of every task around the house. He is the perfect gentleman and boyfriend.
And Ann is wildly frustrated by that fact.
It doesn’t make sense. Chris is doing everything. He’s helping! How could Ann possibly be upset by someone who is literally doing everything that she could ask for? But Ann reveals to her coworkers (who later tell Chris) that all his efforts are making her feel useless and incapable of solving her problems. When he rushes off to address her every need, she feels that are feelings are invalidated. Chris’s coworkers say to him that all Ann really needs to hear are the two magic words: That sucks.
We all fall victim to trying to be everything for our kids, especially now when it feels like we ARE everything to our kids. We try to solve every problem, bootstrap every obstacle, and call upon all our resources the moment we are needed. Who wants to see their children suffer, especially when we see the possible solutions that we could enact for them? But there are times that we simply cannot do that. It may not be possible. It may not be the best choice for the kid right now. It may not even be in our own best interest.
When we problem-solve for our kids, we increase the pressure on ourselves to Fix It. That means immediately that we are psychologically inserting ourselves in their problems. That is more challenging at best, and counterproductive at worst. When we insert ourselves into our child’s problem, we take the focus away from the actual problem. We often push a Life Lesson® that, while potentially helpful (“When I was in this situation when I was your age, I just did XYZ and things turned out great!”) is going to fall on deaf ears. Or we tell a personal anecdote that, despite our best intentions, isn’t really going to fully address what our kids are struggling with. In a family therapy session not too long ago, a kid was wildly upset that he had missed out on getting a solo in concert choir. His dad swaggered in and said, “Well, I remember when my grandfather died and I had to come home early from summer camp. I was crushed but I got over it.” I acutally had to say to him in session “What does that have to do with what we are talking about?!” I know he was trying to help but he lost the thread and, when he did, he lost his kid’s attention.
Additionally, when we rush in, we also tell our kids that they cannot handle their problems on their own. No, we don’t say this overtly (though I have seen parents say to their upset kids, “Shhh, let me do this for you so you don’t have to worry at all, ever.” Then I increase their therapy to twice per week. Kidding. Kinda.), but we say it with our behavior. When comes comes rushing in, it’s a major event, right? To a kid, a major event says that the adults are in charge and they can take a back seat. But we want our kids to be charge of their own emotional regulation. We want them to feel their feelings and then feel the power that comes with getting those feelings back under control.
So, because I want to give you something to use, I am once again calling on the brilliance of Parks and Recreation. Ann comes home from work and Chris is there, doing his brilliantly manic job of maintaining the house. She starts to complain and, instead of rushing to fix it, he moves to her. He sits down on the couch and says, “that sucks.” Ann smiles. “Right?” she says. “Tell me more,” Chris replies, and they begin to work through her rough day (and here’s the important part) together.
Tell your kids that the things that are making them sad/angry/scared/upset “suck” (or, once again, whatever your word is for that) because it does. When you’re upset, do you want people to solve your problems or to commiserate? (See point #7 for more!). Your kids want that same respect, empathy, and compassion. And if they don’t get it? Well, that sucks.
As we all know, there is no one technique (or 11) that will magically make the difficult job of homeschooling suddenly “easy.” What I can share is that these techniques are effective means of promoting effective, emotionally-intelligent communication. These techniques focus on strengthening skills and relationships, while giving kids tools to access help and support as needed. When we use our words to support and structure our homeschool kids, we set them up for even greater success.
Questions? Feedback? War stories? I would love to hear from you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org