For the next several months a group of writers focused on the issues of boys and men are collaborating through the writing and sharing of blog posts in order to bring greater awareness to the unique challenges boys and men face in the 21st Century. Twice a month these writers will be posting the same posts on their various media formats to spread the word and to introduce their audiences to the great work of their peers. Today’s post features Dr. Dennis Coates, creator of Strong For Parenting, an online coaching experience. www.prostarcoach.com
Mentoring Boys – The Challenge of Improving Communication Skills
by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” – African proverb
In his classic parenting book, The Wonder of Boys, psychologist Michael Gurian claims that “three families – not one” are needed to raise a healthy child to be a happy, successful adult. The first family is the “nuclear family”—the parents and grandparents who raise the child. The second family is the “extended family”—teachers, coaches, relatives, caretakers and other adult mentors. The third family is the surrounding culture and community—media, churches, government and other institutions.
Gurian makes the case that raising a boy to be a strong adult takes so much effort that a mother and father simply can’t do it all. This has always been so, but today both parents may be working; modern life is more complex than it used to be; new media present new risks; and at a time when boys need guidance the most, they’re spending much more time away from home than with their parents.
Of course the traditional “tribe” or “village” is no longer a typical part of modern culture. In our mobile society, grown children often move away to create lives far from where they grew up. They may move many times, and their own children may be growing up in a community of strangers.
Furthermore, many nuclear families these days are headed by single parents. This is especially tricky when the single parent is trying to raise a child of the opposite sex. Moms have never been boys, and dads have never been girls, so they may not fully understand what their child needs.
Today, caring parents attempt to create a modern-day version of the village by getting their boys involved in programs that will put them in contact with teachers, athletic coaches, counselors, ministers and other youth programs leaders, who parents hope will help their boy grow up strong for life.
That potential for a positive impact is real and significant. The classroom, sports, work, and other youth programs can demand that a boy acquire specialized knowledge and skills, dealing with difficult challenges, striving against adversity, and working well with others. Like sharpening an ax against a grindstone, boys can become stronger by dealing with life’s inherent challenges. With the facilitation of a skilled mentor, the boy’s efforts can lead to building aspects of character strength such as composure, cooperation, commitment, compassion, effort, excellence, initiative, integrity, perseverance, responsibility, self-confidence and self-discipline. These are the kinds of strengths that will help young men succeed in school, university and later in work and life.
But there’s a problem. For nearly 40 years I’ve been delivering training programs, assessment tools and learning systems to millions of working adults, the kinds of adults who will comprise this modern-day village; and what I’ve learned is that few of these adults have the kind of communication skills that are essential to effective mentoring. They’re not very good listeners. They don’t know the best way to give feedback, whether positive or negative. And they don’t know how to coach a boy to transform a life experience into a life lesson.
These deficiencies are not the fault of the adults. When we were growing up and learning how to deal with each other, we weren’t taught effective communication skills. While these are probably the most important skills a person can learn, the irony is that they’ve never been a part of anyone’s formal education. The assumption has always been that people learn how to interact through normal socialization. The idea has never caught on that there are ideal ways to communicate and that there quite a few interpersonal skills that can help people interact well with each other—and can be taught.
Those of us who were lucky enough to have excellent role models while growing up may have acquired a few effective communication skills, and these abilities no doubt helped us succeed. But these are exceptions. Most of us grow up with communication habits that make relationships difficult.
The problem is that the ability to engage with young people is crucial to the effectiveness of an adult mentor.
For example, most people mistakenly believe they are good listeners. The goal of listening is to “get the message,” to understand exactly what the speaker is trying to say. Most people don’t even realize when a “listening moment” is happening, because they think they’re involved in conversation, which is quite different from listening. They might be doing something else at the time and not give the speaker full attention. Or they might do more talking than listening in order to share their own stories and opinions. They might even interrupt the speaker to get their own points across.
When adult mentors fail to listen well, they can misunderstand what a young man is trying to say. During adolescence, most boys are seeking greater independence, pushing away from their families and other adults. When they try to connect with an adult and they get the feeling that they haven’t been heard, most of them will feel disrespected and misunderstood, and they’ll stop trying.
Another key mentor-youth communication skill is the ability to guide learning, a powerful skill that most adults have never heard of.
When it comes to teaching skills and techniques, a good approach is instruction, followed by demonstration, then lots of practice and coaching. To convey concepts and knowledge, lectures are often effective. However, neither of these approaches works well at all when teaching life lessons. When most adults spot a learning opportunity, their instinct is to lecture, to make sure the lesson is made clear. The problem is that young boys don’t react well to lectures. Even if they know the adult means well and is right, they don’t like being preached to. The lesson belongs to the adult but not to the boy, and it can be perceived as a put-down. He may endure the lecture in silence, discounting what he’s been told.
A better method is to ask open-ended questions that guide the boy to discover the lesson:
- “What happened?”
- “Why do you think it happened that way?”
- “What were the consequences?”
- “What do you think is a better way to handle that situation?”
Most adults aren’t familiar with this way of transforming life experiences into life lessons; but when it comes to helping boys grow stronger, it’s practically the only approach that works.
Other important mentor-youth communication skills include giving feedback, giving encouragement, dialogue and resolving conflict.
Few adults have mastered any of these best practices, and I’ve never met an adult who was good at all of them.
And yet, the adults in a child’s life want to have a positive impact. They’re doing the best they can, but typically they aren’t conscious of issues about the way they communicate. Even if they were, they wouldn’t know what to do about it. They may not appreciate that improving only a few specific skills can make a world of difference.
One of the difficulties I’ve encountered in my years working with adults is that improving skills like these takes much more than watching a video or reading about it in a book. A line from “The Matrix,” one of my favorite movies, comes to mind: “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Changing a long-ingrained behavior pattern takes a long-term program of modeling, reinforcement, feedback and encouragement. Like an athlete working on skills, the adult has to “do the reps.” The reason is that when it comes to interacting, adults don’t consciously decide how they’ll communicate. They do what we all do: they react out of habit. They have to wire their brains for new habits of communicating.
To deal with this challenge as a developer of adult learning systems, I designed ProStar Coach, a brain-based, online coaching system for developing communication skills and personal strengths. My recent focus on youth has led me to create versions of this program for young people and the adults who mentor them. Anyone who is interested in these learning platforms can learn more at www.prostarcoach.com.