Kids Talk Workshops and Newsletters
Put-It-Into-Action Advice You Can Trust
Maren Schmidt, M. Ed.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Learning To Express Needs

Be careful for what you ask for, you might get it. 

To communicate to the heart of our relationships, it is important that we learn to state our needs with clarity and positiveness. 

Negative requests can confuse the listener and provoke resistance. 

When we make a request in the negative, I don’t want chocolate ice cream, the request may be interpreted and received in a multitude of ways.  The receiver might think you want anything but chocolate ice cream and bring you brussel sprouts.  Or resistance may be created: Who does she think she is?  Too good for chocolate ice cream?  Humpf!  

Be positive and clear.  Stating our requests clearly and friendly, May I have some strawberry ice cream, please?, will either get us what we want, or information that our request is not available.  With positive and clear messages we’re less likely to end up with small cabbages for dessert.

Avoid vague words. In our communications we need to specify actions while avoiding terms for vague behaviors.  The request, Don’t run!, might result in whatever the listener can think of quickly, perhaps skipping, jumping in a puddle, or stopping in the middle of the street.  A positive statement,  Walk and hold my hand, please, is clear and specific.

Make precise requests.  Certain words lend themselves to ambiguity. Instead of using the phrase, Help me, be specific in your request.  Say instead, Please take the kitchen garbage out now.  Include the person’s name and you make the request more exacting.

Vague terms such as “being responsible” need to be given as well-defined examples.  A request to clean up the living room is indefinite.  I need you to vacuum the floor before the real estate agent comes at two, makes the request crystal clear.

Think and rehearse. Making clear requests takes practice and conscious effort.  One pitfall in learning to express our needs is that we can state our needs but not offer clear guidelines for action.  For example, I’m thirsty, may get you a glass of water or a sideways glance with the retort, Is your arm in a sling?

More evident to the listener is the request: May I please have a glass of ice water?

Ask or demand? Requests made without addressing personal feelings and needs may sound more like demands or ultimatums.  

Saying, Put your coat on, may create resistance in the listener.  Add feelings and needs to the request and cooperation is more likely: It’s cold outside and you’re getting over a cough.  Could you please put on your coat, so I’ll know you are warm enough?

We cannot not communicate.  Each time we interact with a person, we are consciously or unconsciously making a request.  Perhaps our request is direct, aimed at specific people with defined objectives; or indirect in that we want to be listened to, understood, and acknowledged either verbally or nonverbally.  A nod of the head or a raised eyebrow may be all that is asked of a listener.  We need to be on the look out for implicit requests for more information that include honest feedback or a specific action to fulfill a need.

One thing is certain.  The more precise we can be on what we want from another person, the more likely we are to get what we want.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Owning Our Emotions

Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning writes about our freedom residing in the space between stimulus and response. 

Your child hits you. 

Your freedom lies in the space of time between being hit, the stimulus, and your response to being hit. 

That moment contains your power to choose how you receive the message and your response.  In your response lies personal growth and freedom.  This space offers a small window of opportunity that enlarges with practice. 

When we are sent negative messages, either verbally or nonverbally, we have four options on how we receive the message.

One, we can blame ourselves.  Junior hit me because I’m too busy to take him to the park.

Two, we can blame others.  Junior is out of control.

Three, we can sense our own feelings and needs.  We might think: I understand that Junior is disappointed about not going to the park.  But I need to fix dinner and I don’t like to be hit. 

Four, from the negative message, we can sense others’ feelings and needs.  Junior is feeling angry because I can’t take him to the park right now to swing on his favorite swing.  He wants to have my undivided attention.

Frankl also wrote that freedom must be lived in terms of responsibleness.

Like two sides of the same coin, with freedom comes responsibility.  We take responsibility for our choices by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values or thoughts, rather than blaming others for our feelings.  When we can connect our feelings to our needs, others find is easier to respond with kindness and understanding.

A trap we can encounter in this space between stimulus and response is that we may try to change others’ behavior by using guilt and abdicating to others our responsibility for our own feelings.

Take for example this phrase: You make me mad.  Here’s the reality.  Nobody can make you mad, or happy for that matter. When you own your emotions, only you can choose to be mad or happy, or whatever other feeling you choose in that moment between stimulus and response.

We also begin to take responsibility for our feelings when we can distinguish between being motivated by guilt and wanting to give from the heart.
In our example of the hitting child, if we interpret the negative message of hitting as the child’s way of saying “Mommy, you make me so mad”, we could choose to receive this message with the first option, blaming ourselves. 

Blaming ourselves can lead to guilty motivations instead of giving from the heart.  Motivated by guilt we might respond and say, Here sweetheart, have a piece of candy, or think, I’m a terrible parent, instead of trying to understand our own feelings and needs, much less trying to comprehend someone else’s feelings and needs.

If we choose to respond to the hitting using our fourth option, sensing others feelings and needs, we take responsibility for our own feelings and needs and act in a way that is not motivated by guilt.

To become aware of our abilities to respond, and to use the time between stimulus and response effectively, practice using the following phrase:

When you (action), I feel (emotion) because I (want or need).

Back to our hitting example:  When you hit me, I feel upset, because I want to get dinner ready, and have more time to spend with you. 

Remember, our freedom lies in the space between stimulus and response. We always have a choice.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Communicating Emotions

A long-term study of college students tested their vocabularies while also asking the group to rate their level of happiness. For over fifty years the test subjects with the largest vocabularies declared the greatest satisfaction with their lives.

For many of us the vocabulary to express emotions is limited to a few words. Mad, sad, glad, bad.  Additionally many people were raised to not express feelings and find it difficult to connect their emotional states to words.  

Others may say "I feel," but they are expressing a thought: I feel that we should elect a new mayor. Replace the words, I feel, with I think, and the opinion becomes obvious.

Being unable to communicate emotions, due to a lack of vocabulary or an inability to connect words and feelings, damages our relationships and prevents the creation of healthy life-long relationships.

Learning to distinguish between thoughts and feelings. We need to help our children and ourselves learn to differentiate thoughts from feelings.  

Marshall Rosenberg, in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, says that feelings are not being clearly expressed when the word "feel" is followed by certain words:

1) That, like and as if.  
Examples: I feel that nobody listens to me. I feel like an idiot. I feel as if I'm in a box.

2) Pronouns I, you, he, she, it, they, it.  
Examples: I feel I'm being used. I feel it is a lost cause.

3) Names or nouns referring to people.  
Examples: I feel John is responsible for the situation. I feel the child is being manipulative.

Interestingly enough, when we express a feeling we don't need to say "I feel." For example, I am feeling sad or I am angry express feelings and not thoughts or opinions.

Once we learn to tell the difference between thoughts and feelings, the next step is to distinguish between our self-opinions and feelings.

Learning to distinguish between self-opinions and feelings. It's easy to fall into the trap of using the phrase I feel to express who or what we think we are. I feel I'm a terrible tennis player doesn't express emotion but gives an opinion. I feel frustrated when I play tennis, I don't enjoy playing tennis, I'm disappointed with my tennis game--these statements reflect feelings.

After we begin to see the difference between self-opinions and feelings, we need to look at I feel statements to see whether they might reflect our impressions of others' opinions.

Learning to distinguish between our impressions of others' opinions and our feelings. We need to keep our antennae up when using I feel statements to understand if our words are telling us more about how we think others are behaving, or what opinions others have of us.  

I feel stupid communicates more of what you think others are thinking about you rather than your true feelings. I feel discouraged may express your honest emotions about your interaction with others.

Be aware of these words. Here are words used with I feel statements that express how we think others are thinking.  

I feel (fill in the blank): boxed-in, bullied, cheated, cornered, interrupted, intimidated, unheard, unwanted, used. These words do not express true feelings.

Build an emotional vocabulary. My seventh-grade English teacher forbade us to use the words ''good'' or ''nice'' in our writing, a great way to enlarge emotional vocabulary and to sense the truth in a situation.  

Which words better communicate feeling good? Carefree. Jubilant. Amazed. Thrilled. Pleased. Moved. Excited.  

Or feeling bad? Afraid. Bewildered. Blah. Blue. Fidgety. Lonely. Irritated. Resentful.

When we can express our feelings clearly we connect with others more easily. With authentic connections to others, we resolve conflict more simply, leading to healthy and happy people. Or should I say, merry, or mirthful, or enchanted, or satisfied, or excited....

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Heart Of Relationships: Effective Communication

To know who our children really are, we need to observe our children at work and play.  J Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, wrote that the highest form of human intelligence is observing without evaluating.

The more I observe the more I understand Krishnamurti.  Observation and evaluation serve us best as separate activities.  Observing people’s behavior and keeping the observation free of the evaluating components of judgment, criticism and psychoanalysis can be challenging to say the least. 

Some might say impossible.

Observing the child having a temper tantrum, we tend to think and judge: My, what an awful child. 

Criticism enters: Why don’t the parents do something? 

Analysis begins:  Poor child.  Not enough sleep or adult guidance.  A good snack and a nap will fix that.

Even if we can avoid judging, criticizing or analyzing, other tendencies creep into our observations.  Labeling and classification begin with thoughts such as—Oh, that child’s trouble, is spoiled rotten, has bad parents, needs medication, should see a doctor, and on and on.

Name-calling and pigeonholing, though, doesn’t help the child or strengthen our relationships.  One of the inherent problems with language is the difficulty we have in making words represent a world of change, growth, processes, and other dynamic functions.  With every experience, we are all changing.  How can our thinking and language embrace that change?

Observing while withholding evaluation aids us in finding the complexity in situations, as well as understanding the inadequacy of language to define a constantly changing reality.  Language limits our perception of the whole child, the whole person and the whole world.

As we observe we need to train ourselves to be aware of how language, a static process in a dynamic activity, makes it easy to judge, criticize and analyze other’s behavior. 

Unfortunately, recipients usually perceive our name-calling and labeling as critical and judgmental, and not as an offer of help or guidance.

The words, always, never, every, whenever, as well as frequently and seldom, exaggerate a situation and create defensiveness in the listener while confusing observation and evaluation within the speaker. A few examples follow: 

Evaluation: He always throws a fit. 
Observation: This past Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings for about ten minutes before dinner he has laid on the floor, cried, and kicked his feet. 

Evaluation: His parents never make him behave. 
Observation: On two occasions I saw him throw books off the shelves with no interference from his father.

Evaluation:  He is just hungry and overtired. 
Observation: He didn’t eat any lunch and was up at 5:30 this morning.

To communicate effectively and understand how to strengthen a relationship, practice observing behavior without evaluation. 

Edit out the judging, criticism, analyzing, name-calling and labeling that prevent honest expression and compassionate listening, the two key components to effective communication. 

The heart of our relationships lies in our ability to communicate honestly and with compassion.

This begins a series of articles on effective communication. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Announcing The Effective Communication Series

For over ten years, I have written this Kids Talk newsletter and blog. 

The name, Kids Talk, comes from my desire to help adults understand what children need, if only children could express those needs clearly.

When we, as adults, seek to understand our children, we must begin by observing their behavior. We then look for feelings. We anticipate needs. We respect the requests of our children, who in every culture and generation have said, ''Help me help myself.''

At the center of most of our problems today--within ourselves, our families, our businesses, our countries and our world--is ineffective communication. Experts who study and practice effective communication for years find themselves in the middle of misunderstandings. The challenge is immense.

The following four keys to understanding comprise the fundamental components of effective communication, the heart of all relationships.
1) Observation of behavior
2) Searching for feelings
3) Anticipating needs
4) Respecting requests

Over the next nine weeks, Kids Talk will focus on the skills needed for effective communication. Many of these ideas won't be new to you, as in some way or another these concepts comprise the Kids Talk underlying theme.

My undergraduate degree was in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, and over the years I've enlarged my understanding of communication techniques and tools through my work with children and their families. 

I've used ideas from Carl Rogers to Mr. Rogers, Active Parenting, How to Talk So Kids Will ListenThe Seven Habits of Highly Effective PeopleWhat Do You Really Want For Your Children and Dale Carnegie's How To Make Friends and Influence People, to only name a few.

These articles draw heavily from Marshall Rosenberg's book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Rosenberg writes that the language and communication skills given in his book are nothing new. We've known this information for centuries. We need to be reminded of what we already know.

Effective communication, nonviolent communication, compassionate communication, active communication--whatever we wish to call it--is essential to the health of our families, and thus to our world.

''We must be the change we wish to see in the world,'' is often quoted from Gandhi.

To change the world, we must begin with ourselves. I urge you to read, learn and share this series of articles and to incorporate effective communication into your life everyday. My job is to remind you, and me, of what we already know.

Let us begin!

Carnegie, Dale. How To Win Friends and Influence People. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1936, 1981.

Covey, Stephen. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1989.

Dyer, Wayne, What Do You Really Want For Your Children. HarperCollins. New York. 1985.

Faber, Adele and Mazlish, Elaine. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Avon Books. New York. 1980.

Petersen, James C. Why Don't We Listen Better? Petersen Publications. Portland, Oregon. 2007.

Popkin, Michael. Active Parenting. Active Parenting, Inc. Atlanta. 1983.

Rosenberg, Marshall. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press. Encinitas, CA. 2003.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Children Love Quiet

Somehow between Madison Avenue and Hollywood, and all the places where kiddie culture is fed, we’re given the view that children are rowdy and eternally needing to be entertained.

Picture a scene of children getting out from school.  What do you imagine?  More than likely it’s children shouting and running from the school building.

Though the movies would have us believe otherwise, children actually love quiet. 

The portrayal of children in our popular culture tends to emphasize hyperactivity and hyper-noise.  Children require movement and appropriate, yet creative, methods to express themselves, which unfortunately, are not readily given.  If we, as adults, had to do what some children must everyday, we’d be portrayed as running out of buildings screaming at the top of our lungs.

Our world is a noisy place and most of us haven’t learned how to move softly through space.   Years ago after a function in our church fellowship hall, the volunteer clean up crew began to drag chairs and tables across the room in order to place them in storage racks.  The rumble deafened.  Screeching metal legs against the linoleum made chalkboards and fingernails seem melodic.

My daughters covered their ears, wondering out loud, “Why don’t they carry the chairs quietly?”

“Because, “ I said, “I don’t think anybody’s shown them how.”

My daughters looked at each other quizzically.  As if on cue they each picked up an end of a table and carried it across the room.  As they moved across the floor, the noisy volunteers stopped to see youngsters carrying a six-foot table, quietly.  Very quietly indeed.

Our children love quiet, but as the church volunteers demonstrated, we neglect to show them how to move quietly, how to appreciate the quiet, and how to listen. 

Children enjoy a listening game where everyone gets quiet for about two minutes, which is a very long time for three and four-year-olds, and for some 34-year-olds, too. 

I’d set an hourglass type egg timer in the middle of our group to give the children a focal point and concept of how much longer they should sit and listen.  In the quiet the children heard each other sigh, squirm, and change positions.  In short the children became aware of how a simple movement disrupts the mood of the group.  At the end of the two minute period I would go around the group and ask each child what they heard as they listened.

Without exception, the children were amazed what they could hear.  Birds outside even though all the doors and windows were shut.  Cars at the stop sign a block away.  A fire truck leaving the station a mile away.  The rumble of a train.  The neighbor’s tractor or leaf blower.  The refrigerator.  The heat clicking on.  The air going through their noses.  The clock ticking in the adjoining room.  The faucet dripping in the bathroom. 

In the quiet the children listened.

After this five to ten minute listening exercise the children appeared more confident and controlled in their actions, left the group lesson with a tranquil smile, and worked rest of the morning with deeper concentration than before the lesson.

Children love quiet.  All they need is to learn how to listen and to be heard.  Just like the rest of us.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Noise Surrounds Us

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician, wrote, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Almost three hundred years later and human misery still stems from not being able to listen to oneself think.  

An edition of Ode magazine was dedicated to the topic of silence.  Several journalists detailed their journey into being alone and quiet.  One writer found being in a sensory deprivation unit not quiet at all, but disturbingly noisy, as he listened to his heartbeat, his pulse beat in his ears, and paid attention to his breathing.  What each traveler into the quiet world found is that there is no silence.   

Noise surrounds us.

Sitting quietly with our thoughts and listening to our inner being is unsettling at first.  

How easy it is to distract ourselves.  Turn on the television, the computer, and the video game.  Pick up the phone, or our music devices.  Open the refrigerator door hunting for something because we feel hungry not for food, but for the quiet.

Paying attention to our inner sensations of feeling, hearing, seeing and thinking takes focus and concentration.   Sitting quietly alone is the key to discovering where and who we are in the universe.  It’s much easier to party than to sit and open the package.  What a gift we have though when we can sit, as Pascal suggests, alone in a room and not feel lonely.

Our world today is filled with more distractions than in Pascal’s time, distractions that help us avoid direct confrontation of who we are.  We let “noise” distract us from our dreams, our desires, and ultimately our lives, because we fear hearing our breath, our heartbeat, and the blood rush through our ears. 

Only in the quiet can we listen to that voice that coaches us to be the person we were meant to be.  If only there weren’t so much noise. 

Today take five minutes to listen to your breathing and to your heartbeat.  Listen to your dreams.  Tomorrow listen for another five minutes.   Listen everyday until you are quiet for twenty minutes a day.

 “Learn to be silent.  Let your quiet mind listen and absorb,” Pythagoras recommended over 2500 years ago. 

Sit comfortably in a room alone and your children, and others around you, will be affected by the concentric waves of peace and quiet that you create.

In today’s world our children are at risk for never having the opportunity to learn to sit quietly.  Movement is crucial to child development, but being still and quiet is also of vital import.  Without a sense of direction, movement is misdirected.  Without movement, inspiration is never fulfilled. 

What are those things that keep our children from having quiet time?  Take a few minutes and make a list of all those activities that prevent quiet from being in your family’s life.  Television. Radio. Computers.  Personal music devices.  Cell phones.  Video games. Over-scheduling.

Don’t let the noise of life prevent your children from having the opportunity to listen to themselves, and discover who they are.