Are you a Critic . . . or a Coach?

Did you see Bernard Marr’s latest blog on words we shouldn’t use in e-mail? Here’s the link. Awesome piece, by the way. I agree completely with his point of reframing even negative information and using positive words. I just want to take it a step further.

Have you ever noticed what happens when children run around, and the adults wish they would stop? Think for a minute. What does almost every adult within earshot yell out?

Stop running! Don’t run!

Am I right? Yeah, you know I am.

Does it work? Do the kids stop running? No. Mostly they keep right on running. Then the adults get upset because they think the kids are disobeying them, when in fact, the kids are doing exactly what they were told to do.

What is the last word they heard? Running! Run! So they do what they hear. And we all do that. We humans respond very strongly to action words — verbs. It’s how we’re wired.

You don’t believe me? OK, think of this. You’re in an airplane that just hit some turbulence. You and all the other passengers are valiantly trying to pretend it was nothing much. You’re sucking it up, you’re looking around to see how others are doing, and you’re breathing carefully.

And you’re doing a fine job until someone yells out . . .

Don’t panic!

Suddenly you have a plane full of very scared passengers! The wrong word was used, and nearly everyone is responding with heightened fear, faster heartbeats, and a racing pulse. And no, the flight attendants would never say that. They always tell us to stay seated, fasten our seat belts, and remain calm. They know the value of helping us never even think of that word. They need our brains to work, not to seize up in fear.

So, what to do about the kids running or jumping or whatever the action is that you don’t want? How about this. How about we get in the habit of telling them what we want instead of what we don’t want. Would that work?

I saw this happen years ago at a hotel swimming pool, where several kids were running around (dangerous in that situation), and every time they did, a young woman would call out

Walk slowly, please


I watched in amazement as the kids stopped as though they’d hit a wall. Of course, kids being kids, after a while they started to run again. But each time, she merely called out the same instruction — “Remember to walk slowly, please!” And they did. Magic!

Even though I heard what she said, it didn’t really register until I spoke with her. She explained she was a second grade teacher, and she had learned — as so many others had — that kids do better when the words used match the desired action. So instead of telling them not to run, she tells them to walk slowly. Instead of telling them to stop talking, she asks them to listen to her (give her their ears). Instead of telling them not to make a mess, she tells them to keep things together neatly.

So simple and just plain brilliant.

One last thing, something I always talk about in my communication workshops. Even though the workshops are for business professionals and we talk a lot about communication issues in the workplace, we all have a private life. Language issues crop up in both, so some of my examples are family-oriented.

When we’re correcting, we’re really criticizing, right? We’re saying that the other person is doing something wrong. Do we criticize with a soft, loving voice? I don’t think so. I think our voice from the beginning will have an edge that the other person can hear. And once we start criticizing, if we don’t get the desired result, our voice gets harsher. There’s not much good happening at that moment, is there?

But when we’re coaching, how do we sound? Yes. Nicer. Friendlier. We’re guiding, we’re gently shaping behavior, and we’re usually getting positive results. And I saw and heard this at that swimming pool! That young woman kept her voice friendly each time, and she got the result she wanted and needed. And everyone seemed to be having a really good time!

So the next time your child holds a glass and you want to make sure the glass doesn’t hit the floor . . . rather than “Don’t drop it!” try this: “Johnny, please hold the glass with both hands.”

By the way, this works with adults, too.

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