On not praising, not giving advice, and drawing your feelings

I’ve been reading the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk in preparation for the approach of (duh duh DUHHHHH) the toddler state.


What, me tantrum?

It’s a fantastic book, and what’s fascinating is how much of their advice about how to communicate with kids applies just as well to adults.

In particular, these three techniques struck me – I notice myself using them in sessions as a creative guide, and I think they are wonderful tools we can all use to communicate better.

1) Unhelpful vs. helpful praise

As they put it, “praise can be tricky business. Sometimes the most well-meant praise brings about unexpected reactions.”

In particular, these reactions:

  • Praise can make you doubt the praiser.
  • Praise can lead to immediate denial.
  • Praise can be threatening.
  • Praise can force you to focus on your weaknesses.
  • Praise can create anxiety and interfere with activity.
  • Praise can also be experienced as manipulation.

What works far better is “helpful praise”, which is descriptive rather than evaluative.

“If you describe with appreciation what you see or feel, the child, after hearing the description, is then able to praise himself.”

The problem with words that evaluate – good, beautiful, smart, awesome – is that they draw attention to your judgment as the praiser, instead of the person or thing you’re praising.

So if I say, Wow, what a beautiful painting, you are likely to think, She’s bullshitting me, or Jeez, she thinks that’s beautiful? or I don’t think it’s beautiful at all, or What’s she going to think of the next one… etc etc etc. But you are not likely to think, My painting is in fact beautiful.

On the other hand, if I focus on what I see and feel in response to the painting, you can decide for yourself what to do with that information.

I could say, I see a lot of color in this painting. Or, This painting reminds me of a field I used to run in as a kid. Or, I love the way the paint is layered on the canvas.

Do you see the difference? One is an evaluation and stops the conversation – one opens the door to a larger conversation that is much more interesting than good job/bad job.

2) The futility of giving advice

“When you give immediate advice to children, they either feel stupid (‘Why didn’t I think of that myself?’), resentful (‘Don’t tell me how to run my life!’), or irritated (‘What makes you think I didn’t think of that already?’). When a child figures out for herself what she wants to do, she grows in confidence and is willing to assume responsibility for her decision.”

I think the exact same thing is true of adults. And what they recommend doing instead is this:

  • Help her sort out her tangled thoughts and feelings.
  • Restate the problem as a question. (They also suggest that you “keep quiet after you’ve asked a question like this. Your silence provides the soil in which the child’s solutions can grow.”)
  • Point out resources your child can use outside the home.

The more I think about it, this book is basically a manual for being a Creative Guide. I can’t think of a better description for how I work with people than those three things.

3) The usefulness of drawing your feelings

“… the one activity that seems most comfortable for parents to watch, and most satisfying for children to do, is to draw their feelings.”

They describe this scene between a mother and her 3-year-old:

“’I knelt down, handed the pencil and pad to Joshua, and said, ‘Here, show me how angry you are. Draw me a picture of the way you feel.’ Joshua jumped up immediately and began to draw angry circles. Then he showed it to me and said, ‘This is how angry I am!’

I said, ‘You really are angry!’ and tore another piece of paper from the pad. ‘Show me more,’ I said…. When I handed him a fourth piece of paper, he was definitely calmer. He looked at it a long time. ‘now I show my happy feelings,’ he said.

How interesting that we as adults would rarely think of doing this!

Can you imagine? Next time you and your partner / mother / best friend / co-worker get into a fight, imagine saying this:

Hey, partner.

You seem frustrated. Can you draw your feelings for me?

Wow, that IS frustrating!

I am frustrated too, can I draw what I’m feeling for you?

I am going to start using this as a conflict resolution tool and see if it works! I’ll report back, and if you try it, let me know how it goes.

I also love the cartoons in the book to demonstrate what to do and not to do, like this:


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