In the field of ‘self-help’ and ‘personal growth’ there are literally thousands of books one can read, hundreds of workshops one can attend. Although many may be quite good, there is also such a thing as TMI, Too Much Information. Some of the information can be contradictory; some may be misleading, some might be devoid of any substantial evidence, but sounds good. I rarely recommend books, but there are a few worth noting, one of which is The 4 Agreements, by Miguel Ruiz. Like many of the more useful tomes in this field, The 4 Agreements is not something made up by the author but, rather, is drawn from an established set of understandings going back thousands of years. If you are interested in reading a worthwhile book described as ‘a practical guide to personal freedom,’ consider The 4 Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.
There may be nothing more important in communication than rapport. This is especially true between parents and their adolescent children. Of course, rapport is important across the board, but adolescents are in particular need of adults and parents who can actually listen. Advice for parents: rapport.
Listening is one of the key ingredients in building and maintaining rapport. It’s not enough that a parent listens, however; the parent or adult must convey to the adolescent that they are being heard. This is accomplished through what is called “mirroring” and “paraphrasing.” Simply stated, these two words mean the listener not only repeats what is heard but also in the tone that it was said while at the same time trying to convey the feelings expressed. For example, let’s say a teenager says something like “you never listen to what I have to say, you don’t care about me at all.” A typical parental response might be “that’s not true, I do care about you and I do listen to you.” This is actually undermining the relationship by essentially telling the teenager they are lying. A much better response is “I hear you telling me that you think I never listen to you and that I don’t care about you.” The teenager will then respond by saying “ya, right” or they may adjust their statement. Either way, the parent has been supportive and has demonstrated they have heard what was said. Because the parent has only posed a statement, not a question or demand, there is actually no need for the teenager to respond; but, because of the ping-pong nature of communication, the teenager will respond.
Building rapport requires active listening; the listener needs to be sensitive to hearing words and phrases, tones and moods of the speaker which can then be repeated back to the speaker. This can be somewhat mechanical at first but with practice becomes flexible and fluid. It is an extremely effective method of communicating respect. It does not challenge the speaker, nor does it pose questions. It is merely a way of acknowledging what was said by the speaker. Yet, it paves the way for much more meaningful communication. Everyone wants to be heard. But few people know that they have been heard. By mirroring and paraphrasing, you let the speaker know you heard them.
Another example in the form of a transcript; the speaker is a teenager arguing with her mother about curfew
Teenager: I don’t think I should have to be home by 11pm; why can’t I come home at midnight?
Parent: I can hear that you are frustrated and that you want curfew to be midnight, not 11pm.
Teenager: right, so can I?
Parent: No, honey, not now; remember our agreement — we said on your 16th birthday curfew will be midnight on weekends. You only have to wait another few months.
Teenager: That’s so unfair! All my friends don’t have to come home until midnight!”
Parent: I know you think it’s unfair and I’m sorry you feel that way. You know, all your friends are already 16. That’s why they have a later curfew.
Teenager: Can’t we make an exception this one time?
Parent: I hear that you really want to stay out until midnight and that you’d like an exception this one time. But, that was not our agreement.
Teenager: I don’t believe it! You just don’t care about how I feel.
Parent: You think I don’t care about how you feel
Teenager: you don’t!
Parent: I don’t
Parent: No, you really think I don’t care about how you feel, right now. I hear you.
Teenager: Well, do you?
Parent: Care about how you feel? Of course I do
Teenager: Then why can’t I stay out till midnight?
Parent: You think that if I care about how you feel, I will let you stay out till midnight?
Parent: I care about how you feel, honey, and you can stay out till midnight on weekends when you turn 16 as we agreed.
Teenager: ohhhh, all……right.
When practicing mirroring and paraphrasing, parents needs to be patient and keep their cool. Adolescents can get emotional, illogical and irrational. But, they’re teenagers, they have that prerogative. The parent is an adult and would, hopefully, act as one.
If information and knowledge is the currency of today’s marketplace, then asking questions is the means of accessing that currency, and the art of asking questions is the skill to do it well. Knowing how to ask what questions when is important in sales, management, teaching and parenting as well as learning in any field of study at any time. We ask so many questions daily that we take it for granted. But, there is art to asking questions.
There are two types of questions: open and closed. Closed questions are those that can be answered with one of three words: yes, no or, sometimes, maybe. For example: “Can you tell me the time?” Is actually a closed question because the response only calls for a simple yes or no. More often than not, people will assume the person actually wants to know the time, not just if the person is able to tell them the time. “Are you feeling OK?” is a closed question because, again, a simple yes or no is an adequate response even though the person asking the question may really want more information. Sometimes a closed question is very strategic and a precursor for more questions. For example, an attorney dealing with a hostile witness might begin questioning with a closed question: “I’d like to ask you some questions, is that OK with you?” or “Would you be willing to answer some questions I need to ask you?” In both cases a yes or no is adequate. Moreover, such questions suggest respect as they are asking permission to ask questions. A doctor may ask closed questions to help make a diagnosis. “Do you feel pain in your stomach?” or “Do you feel tired most of the day?” only require a yes or no response. By asking a series of closed questions, a doctor may be able to gather enough information to rule out a variety of diagnosis and discover the problem.
Open questions require more than a simple yes or no (or maybe) answer. They require some elaboration. And, generally, the elaboration is not nearly enough so another open question is asked – and then another. Open questions can be like “the third degree” and are sometimes referred to as interrogative questions. An example of an open question is “how are you feeling today?” A yes or no response doesn’t make sense. Of course, the most common response is “OK” which is pretty meaningless. So, if a person is really interested, they would need to ask another open ended question like “What exactly are you feeling?”
Open ended questions are used extensively in sales and negotiation to help remove objections or obstacles. For example, if a sales person hears the prospective buyer state that it costs too much, the sales person might ask “what specific features does this product need to have so you think the price is fair?” A negotiator might ask one or both parties involved in negotiation “what needs to happen in this negotiation so that you are both satisfied?” These kinds of questions are often not easy to answer and require some thought. Leaders too need to use questions wisely. Asking a subordinate a question in the right way can make the difference between allegiance and sabotage. Parents can benefit from using open ended questions with their children, particularly adolescents. A parent might ask “how can I help” or “what do you need” when inquiring about their child’s poor grades. Although those questions might only get an “I don’t know” response, that in itself is a clue and may actually be true. In such cases, a good question to ask is “can you take a guess?” That, actually, is a closed question requiring only a yes or no response. But, more often than not, a person will take it to the next step and might actually guess at an answer. The irony is that it’s not really a guess but couched in that framework makes it safer to say what they are really thinking.
Take some time and listen to the questions people ask. Listen at work, at the market, at the bank, at home…Wherever you are able to listen to others, try and pick out the open and closed questions. Then, become aware of the questions you ask and begin to use the power of asking open and closed questions more consciously and more concisely.
We hear a lot about physical fitness. Every town has at least one, and probably several, gyms. You see people jogging around town and television infomercials are filled with the latest workout program or gadget to help you get into shape. There is no question that physical fitness is important. But, what about psychological fitness? Are you psychologically fit?
Physical fitness can be measured in terms of weight, body fat, muscle tone, strength, flexibility, stamina, endurance, etc. How does one measure psychological fitness? Psychological fitness, or mental health, can be measured to a degree by assessing the levels of anxiety, depression, stress, self-esteem, satisfaction, positive relationships, responsibility and competence, to name a few. Clearly, a person with high anxiety levels and poor relationships is not as psychologically fit as someone with low anxiety levels and rich relationships. And, just as there are ‘workouts’ which improve physical fitness, so too there are exercises, which can improve psychological fitness.
The key characteristic of the mind is thinking. Our psychological fitness is largely determined by the ways in which we think about things. Thinking is often at the basis of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, violence, post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem and poor interpersonal relationships. Learning how to think accurately and effectively is one of the major components in psychological well-being, or fitness. Effectual thinking can promote psychological flexibility, adaptability, resilience comfort, ease and composure, all of which are ingredients of mental health. But, what is thinking? And, how do we ‘exercise’ it to make it more fit?
The first thing to recognize is that, to quote Albert Einstein, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ In other words, psychological fitness requires a different kind of thinking than the kind we may be familiar with, especially if we are not psychologically fit. Secondly, we can understand thinking simply from the words of Plato: ‘when the mind is thinking it is talking to itself.’ The first task in any psychological fitness then is to listen to yourself talking to yourself. This may seem silly but it becomes critically important for it is in those simple sentences of our internal dialogue, or ‘self-talk’ where we find psychological fatness or unwell-being.
The content of our internal dialogue is often terribly illogical, irrational, inaccurate, invalid and faulty. But, that doesn’t matter. As the mind hears itself talking to itself in these ways, it accepts what it hears, factual or not, accurate or not. It is up to our critical consciousness to question what we might be telling ourselves and to then make adjustments to more reality based thinking. In other words, we have to begin talking to ourselves more realistically, more accurately, more truthfully. If we happen to fail in some endeavor and then start telling ourselves that we are no good, worthless, incompetent and stupid, the mind says ‘ok.’ But, those generalizations are not accurate. We may have failed in one specific task, but that in no way means we are a complete worthless incompetent failure in life! To fail at one thing does not equate to failing at everything.
Just as being overweight is often a springboard to get physically fit, so too depression, anxiety, stress, anger and generally poor interpersonal relationships can be a springboard to get psychologically fit. And, just as a coach or trainer is helpful in starting out with a physical fitness routine, so too is a counselor or therapist conversant in psychological fitness a good idea if you want to be psychologically fit.