Ep 209: Communication Tips for Tough Topics

Derek Borthwick, author of How to Talk to Anybody, joins us to share how we can create better communication with teens. We talk about body language, initiating tough conversations and more.

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Full show notes

Your teen comes home with a less-than-desirable score on a math test. You want to talk to them about it, but the moment you try, they run upstairs, close the door and refuse to come out. When you ask why they scored so poorly, they freak out and maybe even accuse you of calling them stupid…when all you wanted to do in the first place was make them feel better.

Communication with teens is no easy task. Teens have a lot on their plate and their brains are still developing, meaning they can be pretty testy. But there’s a lot of things we might need to speak to them about–sex, drugs, college, and mental health to name a few. Open communication would make parenting so much easier, if only teens were willing to try!

To help us solve our communication conundrum, we’re talking to Derek Borthwick, author of How to Talk to Anybody: Learn the Secrets to Small Talk, Business, Management, Sales & Social Conversations & How to Make Real Friends. Derek is a communication expert and certified business coach who specializes in neuro linguistic programming–meaning he knows a lot about how we use our bodies and words to communicate. He’s worked with some of the world's largest companies and lectured in many of Scotland’s most prestigious universities!

In our interview, Derek and I are discussing how you can read a teens’ body language, how we can ask teens questions that don't scare them off, and why we need to focus on emotional rather than logical reasoning when talking to a teenager.

The Basics of Body Language

 Although body language might seem secondary to verbal communication, it’s actually an essential part of how we express ourselves. How people stand, walk and move can tell us a lot about how they feel, says Derek. 

If a teen is hunched over, walking with their head down, or standing far away from you, it’s possible they’re feeling anxious around you…and maybe not in the mood to have a chat. But if their chest, arms and palms are open and facing towards you, they’re likely feeling comfortable and open to vulnerability, says Derek. Paying attention to their subtle cues can be a good way to know how receptive teens are to a conversation, he says.

 Derek suggests we practice by observing the body language of anyone who happens to be around. Does the person walking down the street towards us seem confident, nervous, relaxed or stressed? How can you tell? Is it in their shoulders, their hands or their stance? Learning the ins-and-outs of body language can help us become better communicators with our teens, but also with our coworkers, spouses and friends!

 So you’ve read your teens’ body language and can see that it might be a good time to finally bring up that bad test score….but how can you initiate the conversation without scaring them off?

Asking the Right Questions

After a week of avoiding the topic, you decide to have a talk about the math test–and ask your teen why they did so poorly. Suddenly, your teen starts throwing all kinds of defensive excuses your way, saying they haven't had time to study, they’ve been distracted, they’re just bad at math anyway…until the conversation ends up with an upset teen and a confused parent. But what exactly was the part of the question that triggered your teen…and how can we ask a better one?

 Derek explains that the word “why” can be a recipe for disaster when talking to teenagers. “Why” can often make teens feel you’re interrogating them, and waiting for them to say something wrong, says Derek.. Instead, Derek recommends using “what”, “when” or even “how”! Questions like: “What distracted you from studying?” or “When do you think you can make time to revisit the material?” prompts kids to give a more well rounded answer without having to defend themselves so much.

If you want teens to feel safe enough to open up, Derek recommends softening your language when bringing up a heavy topic. One way to do this is to pad your sentences with reminders that you care, says Derek. This can help soften the intensity of talking about these tough topics with your kids. Remind them that you’re asking about their sex life or drug use because you want them to be safe…not because you’re trying to get them in trouble!

 To truly reach our teens, however, Derek explains that we have to lean into our emotions. In our interview, we’re talking about how we can do this…and why it's so essential!

The Power of Emotions

 To explain the importance of leading with our emotions, Derek uses the example of flirting with a stranger. If we went up to someone we fancied and laid out ten logical reasons why they should marry us...they’ll probably make a run for the door! But if we tapped into their emotional state, we’d understand that they’d likely feel weird about that kind of introduction…and that we should find a more subtle way to approach them.

 The same goes for communicating with our kids. We’ve all had conversations with our teens in which we present perfectly factual information…only for them to cringe, tell us we don’t know what we’re talking about, or just ignore us completely! Derek reminds us how essential it is to harness our emotions instead when trying to get through to them.

He explains that the middle of our brain–the part that regulates our emotions–tends to be in the driver’s seat for both parents and teens, no matter how logical we think we are. That means that teens’ first reaction when they feel provoked is to either flee or become aggressive– and no logic can take them out of that emotional state! If we want to make teens feel comfortable opening up, we'll need to pay attention to their emotions first.

In our interview, Derek gives lots of tips for putting teens' emotions at ease. One is a technique called mirroring, which requires parents to repeat what kids say back to them in conversation. This can help teens feel heard instead of isolated, and ensures that parents get all the information they need. Listen to the interview for a deeper dive into this topic and more!

In the Episode…

 Derek and I had a fun and informative conversation about communication this week. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about….
  • How we can change our memories
  • Why teens are so resistant to communication
  • How we can be more charismatic in everyday life
  • Why we should avoid “yes or no” questions
  • How to get people's attention by changing our voices
 If you enjoyed listening, you can find more from Derek at power2mind.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Derek Borthwick
Derek Borthwick
Multiple International Best-Selling Author, Leading Authority on Persuasion & Influence. Coach, Trainer, Consulant Dip.C.Hyp/NLP
Ep 209: Communication Tips for Tough Topics
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