Ep 209: Communication Tips for Tough Topics

Episode Summary

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.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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!


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So you’ve written a number of books now, you just had a new book come out just the other day. You have written about body language, communication, negative thinking, all kinds of topics. How did you get started with all this and how do you decide what to write about?

Derek: Yeah, that’s a great question. My background is in finance and I’ve worked for a number of large financial companies. And there came a point where I really had enough of this, and I’d always had an interest in how the mind works. And particularly with hypnosis and NLP, that I came across way back in the nineties when I was a good bit younger and a good bit slimmer as well. And it was something that’s a passion of mine. And I carried on reading about this as I was going along throughout my career. And I decided, when we had lockdown here, I mean, I’m calling from the UK today, when we had lockdown, I decided that I’d always wanted to write a book, Andy. And I felt I had a lot of knowledge. And it really came about from, I was in Toastmasters International, and I was the president of the local club. And I like to give things back and help young people because they have a lot of confidence issues. And I’ve been around the block, as we say here, quite a while. So I felt I could give a lot back to them.

Derek: And I was speaking to people and saying about body language and communication skills and things that I thought everybody knew, and the feeling. So I decided that I wanted to incorporate this, I’m going to write a book. I got out my phone started, and the first book was actually from more of a professional background on the sales book, that I combined half of it [inaudible 00:01:34] works, and half of it was the bit. I felt that was a good one to start off with. And then from that came Body Language, How to Talk to Anybody, and the latest one, How to Eliminate Negative Thinking.

Andy: You talk a lot about awareness and how to develop a deeper level of awareness. And I thought that was really interesting because so much of reading body language is about just being more observant. And I wonder what we can do as parents to develop a deeper level of awareness when we’re speaking with our teenager, having important conversations.

Derek: Yeah, it’s a great question. And we go back to the fundamentals here, that the outer expression is a reflection of the inner thought. So that gives us a clue, when somebody is behaving in an unusual manner, that will be reflected through their body language. So you could imagine if you’ve ever seen an athlete winning a race, they always have the hands up in the air, head looks back. You don’t see somebody leaning over with their hands around by their groin area and making themselves smaller because for each emotion, there is a corresponding body language, that we already know and can read body language, Andy, every one of us can do it. It’s the degree to which we can do it, and whether we can pick up on the most subtle things that are displayed. For example, if somebody came running towards you with a sword, you pretty much know what that body language means. It’s when it gets a little bit more subtle that we have to pick it up.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: So looking at some of the things that we can do to begin with, the very, very basic things we can look for are people move towards things they like, and they move away from things that they don’t like. So those are basic things. Now, how can we train ourself to do this? Some people think that body language is a bit manipulative and you are trying to manipulate people to get them to do things that they don’t want to do. It’s not actually the case, it’s perfectly normal. It’s a bit like a dance. I mean, you and I are speaking today via the internet. If we were in a cafe across in you’re part of the world and sat down, our body language, we start mirroring each other. And that’s because the more alike we are to somebody, then the more rapport we’ll build with them.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: So one of the things we can start doing, Andy, as parents is start becoming aware, and you can train yourself to do this. So when you are walking down the street, you’re going to your local store, start looking at people and think of yourself as a bit like a detective. How much information can you get from that other person when you know nothing about them? Do they look confident? Do they look shy? Do they look tense? Are they relaxed? How quick are they walking? Are they walking upright with their head back?

Derek: Are they looking down, talking to themself? So there’s all these clues that we can train ourself to be aware of. And the key thing, Andy, is getting away from that internal voice. You know the little chatter that goes on when you speak to somebody and you’re thinking, “I can’t wait for it, turn so I can speak next.” And we all do it. So what we want to do is get away from that and try and focus on the other person.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: And there’s a little trick you could use here. I’ve got children and they can be very, very testing at times, I think my daughter in particular really knew how to press my hot button. [inaudible 00:04:52] She has a knack of it. But one of the things that we can do in any body language situation, the book explains all the patterns, but one of the quickest ways is to develop an intense desire to get to know somebody. And really, really want to get to know them. And you’ll find that you’ll have congruent or congruent behavior that will reflect this. You know when people don’t like each other, Andy, the town is not big enough for them, and you can see that with the body language. If you’re even in a business meeting or you’re even in a social setting, people who don’t like each other will keep as far apart as the can from each other.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Derek: So there’s a lot of things that we can do there. And it’s useful to learn the body language patterns. It’s not an exact science, but it does give you an indication. So if you’re speaking to particularly children, as we’ve become adults, Andy, we’ve become a little bit better at covering up.

Andy: Right.

Derek: Our lying signals.

Andy: Totally.

Derek: We get a bit more subtle about it. If you look at a young child. Now, I’ve got a six-year-old that’s about to be seven in a few days, and his body language, he gives the game away a lot. So with children, think about it, they would cover their mouth with a hand, wouldn’t they? If you say, “Have you been lying?” and they immediately cover their mouth with their hand. If people don’t want to look at something, the children will immediately cover their eyes with their hands. Now, as adults, we’ve a bit more savvy. We’ve learnt things like over the years, Andy, so we’re not going to give the giveaway that easily.

Andy: Totally.

Derek: But we will do a subtle thing. We may pull at our eyelids or we may just touch just beneath the eye. So these are all indications that people are uncomfortable. So in body language, we’re really looking at people are in either two states, Andy. They’re either in a feeling of comfort or they’re either in a feeling of tension. And people will move between those two things.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: So, for example, you can read body language. If you see somebody with an angry face and they’re gnarling their teeth at you and the bottom lip becomes smaller, these are signs of distress and discomfort to an extreme level. So we can all read it, it’s whether or not we can read the most subtle aspects.

Andy: So, what we do if we notice we’re talking to someone and they’re exhibiting lots of signs of discomfort, a lot of times, I think when we’re talking to teenagers, their really closed off body language, and we get the feeling like they don’t want to be talking to us, or they’re blocking their body with their arms or exhibiting signs of discomfort, as you’re saying, I guess. So then you talk about mirroring in the book, but do we want to mirror that because then we’re looking uncomfortable also? Or how do we respond when we get shutting down body language from teenager?

Derek: Yeah, I think when you’re speaking to teenagers, one of the things that’s important is to assess whether it’s a good time to speak to them. It may be a good time for us, but it’s not always a good time for them. And you’re right, that the mirroring would tend to be more useful with the adults. With the teenagers, we have to incorporate the use of language as well, to try and get them to open up. And again, one of the things that we can do is, my mother is particularly good, Andy, pointing out my weaknesses. She’s very good at telling me what I need to do. Now, as a parent, if I could give you one big bit of advice, and that is try and avoid telling people what to do.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: So imagine we are sitting there I’m into your office with you, Andy, or sitting next to you. And I said, “Andy, get me a coffee, will you?” There’s a little voice inside your head. That goes, “F you, get your own coffee.” Now, if we can put context around something. So if I said to you, “Andy, get me a coffee, please, because I’m just about to go on a webinar or on a call,” it seems more plausible. And you would then likely do this because people will always accept what they conclude, and they will resist what they’re told. And particularly with teens, the more that you try and tell them what to do.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: The more they’re going to resist. To use another analogy, imagine that I was standing next to you, and I said, “Hold your body nice and firm, Andy,” and I start pressing on your shoulder. You will start resisting that, otherwise, you will topple over. Now, exactly the same thing happens with language. The more that you tell someone what to do, the more they’re going to resist. Have you ever been at a party or a bar? Some of your listeners may identify with this. And a topic of conversation comes up and you’ve kind of got a slight opinion about it, but it’s not a big deal. And then in comes somebody who is a bit of a know-it-all, and they’re desperate to force you to their way of thinking. By the end of the evening, you’re arguing for something that you weren’t really that bothered [inaudible 00:09:46], all because somebody has tried to force you. Now, with teens, it’s an extreme example of this, so we have to tread very, very carefully.

Derek: And again, it’s trying to understand their map of the world. Now, if I can just digress, I know you asked me about body language, and we’ll come back to that in a second.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: Everybody creates their version of reality based on their primary senses. And we all interpret reality differently. If you and I went to the cinema or a movie theater, we would come out and you may like the film, and I made dislike the film.

Andy: Right.

Derek: It’s the same film we are seeing. And you may say, “I really enjoyed that particular part in the film,” and I say, “I didn’t see that.” Or maybe you watch a movie for the second time and you spot more things going on. See, we’re only aware of a very small proportion of what’s going on. For example, you’re now aware of the feelings of your mouth, you’re now aware of the feelings in your left hand. So all this was going on, it’s the level of awareness that you have, and you can move people’s awareness around. So we need to be very careful when speaking to teenagers that we are not focusing on bringing to awareness something that they don’t want to talk about, and something they weren’t aware of but they are now because you’ve highlighted it.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: One of the things we can do is to try and have open body language. Good communicators will communicate with their palms open. Showing your palms indicates honesty. I don’t know if you say in the US, but in the UK, we say, “She was a closed book.”

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: You may say, “I met her. She was a lovely person, she was really open.” Somebody is open to ideas. So the language already gives us a clue. And if you pay attention to that, the body language will then reflect that as well. So people who are more open, think about a party when you go and someone who’s very warm and friendly, what type of voice do they have? What’s the body language like? Is it closed? Do they speak in a monotone like this? Or are they more excited? So these are the things that you can do. It’s really important to build a relationship with your team and try and understand the world from their point of view. I’m sure to us as, being a bit older, their view of the world is a bit mad. It just doesn’t seem to make sense. And we’re going, “You what? You really?” But we do need to realize that the more we push them, the more they’re going to resist.

Derek: So please, please be aware of that. And it’s important, not just for teens, in all aspects of life, whether the partner and business, whatever you’re doing, but particularly with teens, as I’ve had experience of myself.

Andy: Well, and that also points to something that you talk about in your book, on How to Talk to Anybody is questions and how a lot of times I think we ask questions that aren’t really helpful, or we ask them in a way that’s not really helpful and that shuts down the conversation. Questions can be so powerful and useful and can really open things up if we ask them in the right way. I found the tips in your book really helpful. I wonder what you think would be most applicable when you’re talking with a teenager in terms of types of questions to avoid, and how to maybe rethink the way that you’re asking questions so that you can be opening them up instead of shutting them down?

Derek: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a fascinating point question, to particularly with teenagers. Let’s look at some of the basics we can look at. And then I’ll give you some more advanced things that I use when I’m training people. Let’s start off with open questions and closed questions. Now, if any of your listeners have got very young children, and I’m talking probably sub eight years old, possibly a little bit younger than that, they are very, very good at training you for questions. If I said to my son who is, he’s going to be seven shortly, when he was about five, six, “Did you have a good day at school?” “Yes.” “Did you have fun?” “Yes.” So they answer in one word. So a closed question will always get the answer yes or no, particularly from young people and teenagers as well because they don’t want to expend a lot of energy.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: An open question is harder to say yes or no to. If I said, “What did you like most about school today?” It encourages them to open up. Now, okay, the teenagers and young kids, they’ve got a strategy for this and they say, “Don’t know,” or “Can’t remember.” So we have to try again and we can inject a bit of humor. Humor is a great way of diffusing things. And I say to my young son, “Well, I can’t remember where the television control is,” and he goes, “Oh, I played tennis today. I did this.” He’s younger obviously. But we can use the same sort of things with teenagers as well. Now, big, big tip for your listeners is try and avoid the question why, okay? When I say open questions, I should elaborate on that. That is who, when, why, what, where and how?

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: Try and avoid the question word why. I’ll tell you why Andy, because when you ask somebody the question word why, it encourages them to justify their behavior. Great if you’re a therapist, or if you’re trying to solve a particular problem, not good in everyday communication [inaudible 00:15:16].

Andy: Oh, yeah.

Derek: See, for example, Andy, suppose I was sitting next to you and I said to you, “Why did you buy that shirt?” There’s an element of, “Well, that’s a bit cheeky.” And then you would start justifying your behavior.

Andy: Right, yeah.

Derek: Yeah. Now, notice the difference if I subtly change the language, and I said, “What was it you like most about that shirt that made you buy it?” Slightly different, isn’t it? It feels different.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: It’s less intrusive. So try and avoid the question word why. If you are going to use why, okay, a little tip for your viewers is to use the word might because it allows people a get-out. Remember me telling you to get me a coffee?

Andy: Oh yeah.

Derek: If I said to you, “Why should you pay attention at school?” the children are going to have a, “Well, you’re kind of telling me I should.”

Andy: That’s a command a little bit, yeah.

Derek: Exactly, exactly, Andy. Now, let’s look at a different way. Why do you think it might be a good idea to pay attention at school? See, it’s very subtle, but what we are doing is we are giving them the option to say, “Well, it isn’t a good idea,” but also we are starting to get them to list the reasons why, and they end up selling the idea to themselves.

Andy: Yeah, I love that. Yeah, that’s really cool. You talk a lot about softeners, how to [inaudible things or tone things down in the book, and I think that’s really powerful and important.

Derek: Yeah, it is. And it’s useful in all aspects of life. And I’ll tell you why I know about this, Andy. When I was younger, I went on a training course and they encouraged people to ask open questions. And I thought, “This is great.” And I was very young and I was learning all about this, and I went out on a date and I took it literally. I started asking this girl, “Where are you from?” “How long have you been here?” And she said, “You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” And it didn’t go very well. So the way to do this, and let me give you an example, suppose that I was asking you questions and I said, “What’s your name?” And you answer, and I say, “Where are you from?” and you answer, and then I say, “How long have you lived there for?” Round about that point, you start to go, “Hang on a minute.

Andy: This is an interrogation.

Derek: Yeah, interrogation. Yeah, nobody wants that, do they?

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: So there’s a way round that. What we do is remember the brain always likes context. And I’ll give you just three little rules actually here with the brain, okay? So the confused mind always says no, the suspicious mind always says no, and the angry mind always says no. And you can get people angry by confusing them. So imagine you have to keep things really, really simple.

Andy: Yeah.


Suppose that you said to somebody, “Why did you miss that lesson today?” Immediately, you’re in the word why.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: Okay? So people are going to start being defensive and justify their behavior. And then, yeah, roll on, we have an argument. Now, if you can put some context around it and say, the world curious is very good as well, say something like, “I’m curious, just so that I can understand why the lessons are not so important or are not going so well for you. Why did you miss that lesson today?” Do you feel it’s slightly less intrusive?

Andy: Yeah. Yeah, right.

Derek: There’s something that goes on in the UK, I don’t know if it translates to wealth across to the US, but I’ll give you an example here. I picked this up actually from some well-heeled stockbrokers.

Andy: Oh, okay.

Derek: We would describe those as being wealthy and well educated and I guess the upper class.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: And there’s a phrase I picked up years ago. It’s quite clever because what it does is it’s called presumption. And they would say, “I wonder if you would be kind enough to close the door.” So closing the door is presumed, it’s whether someone is kind enough to do it is the question. Do you see that? It’s quite subtle, I expand on this in the book.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: So whenever you can do that, you can try and use presumption in there. But the best way to think about language softness is imagine that I was to give you, I’ve got a present for you, Andy, and I just come out and I give you the present. Now, let’s just say, it’s a new phone and I give you the box.

Andy: Ooh.

Derek: The phone in the box.

Andy: Okay.

Derek: Okay?

Andy: Thank you.

Derek: Well, thanks very much. Now, if I can wrap it up with some nice paper and put a bit of a bow around it, you open it up and it’s a much nicer way to deliver it. So we think of the language softness as the wrapping paper around the question, it softens it. You can really ask some quite personal questions about people as long as you give context and you wrap the language softness around it.

Andy: This is really important, I think. And a lot of times, I hear parents who use more simple attempts at trying to placate or preface our questions with things like “Now, now, okay, don’t get mad, but I need to ask you about missing class today,” or, “Don’t take this the wrong way but…” And I feel like that immediately, I don’t even know what you’re going to ask me, and I’m already taking it the wrong way, or I’m already mad. It’s the right instinct. We know that we should soften it somehow or put the little something else around it to cushion the blow of what we’re about to ask or tell our teenager. But I don’t know, I’ve always felt like it comes off wrong when we use phrases like that. And what you’re advocating here is, I think, a lot more effective.

Derek: It is. And it’s a wonderful example you’ve given there, Andy, I love that. Let me show you what I mean. The brain has to process information. So any suggestion you make, as I said earlier, you’re now aware of the sensation in your mouth.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: You weren’t before. So for your listeners, whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant, okay? So please don’t think about a pink elephant. So the way the brain works is you have to think about the pink elephant first, and then you delete it. So if I say to you, and it’s a wonderful example you’ve given there, “Don’t take this the wrong way.” It means the brain goes, “Right, okay. I need to take this the wrong way. Oh, he doesn’t want me to do that.” And delete. Now, with every word has an appropriate emotion that is associated with that. So first of all, to understand it, you have to visualize the pink elephant whether it’s an emotion [inaudible 00:21:28].

Andy: Yeah. How would I take it the wrong way? What would that even look like? Oh, I see, yeah. And what’s the right way.

Derek: Exactly.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: So, using the word might is quite important. I’m going to share a little secret with you as well.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: And that is, it’s the way people are wired. Now, everybody is just that little bit selfish, including teenagers, particularly teenagers.

Andy: Oh yeah.

Derek: And they’re interested in what’s in it for me, we’re all tuned to that radio station, WIIFM, what’s in it for me? Okay, so it’s really, really important that when you’re addressing somebody that you cover that topic, and if you don’t believe me, just I’m going to ask you are listeners a question. Imagine that you’ve got a picture, a picture has been taken of you and all your friends, it may even be your family. Who do you look at first in that picture?

Andy: Oh, yourself.

Derek: Exactly. No, we even do it with our own children, which is terrible. We shouldn’t admit to that, but we do. That’s the way we’re wired. So another little phrase that’s really useful is what’s important to you about? So why might it be a good idea to attend the lessons? What’s important to you about? And then that allows people to open up. It’s much, much softer.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: With teenagers, they can be testing because actually the young brain doesn’t mature fully until the age of 25. That’s when the risk center fully matures. And we know that because if you look at car insurance premiums, they’re extortionately high for young people. And then as they get older, we start to assess risk a bit better.

Andy: Yeah.

Derek: We’ve all looked back at our early years and we’ve done some crazy things. So we have to identify that, remember, everybody has their own map of the world. And I know that life would be so much easier if everyone was just a bit more like us, but they’re not, we’ve all got our own map. So we have to understand the other people’s maps. And particularly, the teenage map is quite a challenging map. But what’s important to them may not be important to us, but we need to try our best to understand their version of reality, how they construct their map, and what’s important to them, and allow them to express themselves, challenging as it is.


About Derek Borthwick

Derek Borthwick is the author of How to Talk to Anybody.

Derek is also the author of the bestseller Inside The Mind of Sales–How to Understand the Mind and Sell Anything.

Over the last thirty years, Derek has worked with some of the world’s largest companies all over the UK and Europe. He has also lectured at some of Scotland’s top universities. He  is a certified coach by diploma and Master Practitioner  of Neurolinguistic Programming.

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