HOW TO TALK TO TEENAGERS AND OTHER LIFE FORMS

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THREE TECHNIQUES FROM ACTOR TRAINING.

I first started using these techniques about a hundred years ago when I was a very young man training as an actor in Sydney. At about the same time I got a contract to teach a music course to a group of homeless kids in Bondi. The work was challenging, confronting and deeply rewarding and over the following years it led me to occasionally work with young people of all ages in Schools, Youth Centres, Remote Communities, Prisons, Refuges, and for various Government and Private Agencies. I still do a small amount of similar work to this day.

The thing I noticed in these various jobs was how useful some of my Theatre training was when it came to developing a working relationship with these kids, in particular a few techniques that centred on the theatrical concept of Status Transactions.
Actors study the many ways that we subconsciously transact status so that they can consciously replicate them to more truthfully portray characters and their inter-relationships on the stage. In everyday life these same techniques can be consciously used to significantly improve the ways we communicate with each other, and the outcomes that result.

StatusWHAT DO WE MEAN BY STATUS?

In animal societies status is often defined as a kind of ‘pecking order’ and you probably understand human status in a similar way; as a measurement of rank, prestige or standing. Most think they would prefer high status if given a choice; we’d like to be richer, more powerful, more respected, we want to be big fish not small fry but, as we’ll see, that aspect is only one small piece of the status jigsaw.

An individual’s status can reflect their institutional or positional power, (the Judge for example has very high status in her own courtroom) or it can be situational, (in her own house the Judge may actually have lower status than her five year old Granddaughter). In fact our status is very far from fixed, because we are constantly changing and adjusting our status relationships with those around us, literally from moment to moment sometimes, and we do so in order to try and promote our own aims and interests; put simply, we want to get more of what we want.

Status transactions are actually an integral part of the way we communicate with each other, and the incredibly nuanced and varied ways we contrive to do that could easily constitute a lifetime’s study. We’re just scratching the surface here, but what I hope to give you are three very practical and simple techniques that you can start using right away, in every relationship in your life, and I know they will help you to get ‘more of what you want’. They work just as well on toddlers and teens as they do on adults, because in this sense I guess, none of us ever really grow up.

THE BASICS

There are three things to remember at this stage:

Firstly, we give and take status mostly through our bodies.

Secondly, we normally do so subliminally, that is, at a level which is below our conscious awareness.

Fight or flightAnd thirdly, although it may seem a little contrary to common sense at the moment, you will need to understand that it is often far more useful and effective for you to take up a low status position than to try and assume high status. This will explain itself as we go on, but in simple terms, perceived threats to our status are one of the things that can trigger a Limbic System Response, which basically puts us into ‘Fight or Flight’ mode. If you’re trying to gain my co-operation or discuss something rationally with me then this is not the state you want me in…and very importantly…this often happens without either of us even being aware that it’s occurring!

I’m going to be talking about these techniques in the context of a particular project that I did with a very particular group of young folk, but it won’t take much imagination on your part to imagine how these techniques might apply in other areas of life; like talking to your boss or a colleague at work, to a family member, to a police officer, in fact, in every conversation you’ll ever have.

THE THREE TECHNIQUES

Well here they are:

  1. TAKE UP LESS ROOM.
  2. ATTENTION TO THE PARTNER.
  3. MAKE A CONCESSION.

This particular contract was a Music Program run over about twelve weeks. There were ten teenaged clients aged 13 to 17, six boys and four girls. I would run two hour sessions with them, mostly one – on – one, but as the project progressed the participants would work more together as an ensemble, with the culmination being some sort of performance or ‘album launch’. That was the plan anyway.

I had a bunch of instruments and amps, a drum kit and some percussion, and best of all, I was set up for recording with a mixing desk and a brand new Four Channel Cassette Tape Recorder! (Cutting edge in the day dear friends, though I can hear anyone who wasn’t alive in the seventies saying…”A what kind of what now?”…my first demo was actually done using Three Quarter Inch U-Matic Reel To Reel Tape man…of course recording was all steam powered back then).

The equipment was all set up in a fairly large and shabby old factory space. I had a (very) limited materials budget and I spent it all on gaffer tape (of course) and a ragged assortment of seating options that I got at the op shop. There were a few swivelling office style chairs on wheels, with adjustable seats and backs, a couple of shabby three seater faux leather lounges (“How many vinyls had to die to make that couch?”), some stools and folding camping seats, and a large straight-backed wooden kitchen chair.

Why am I rabbiting on about the furniture? Because it’s all about our first technique! Which is…

1. TAKE UP LESS ROOM.

The first and simplest rule of status transactions is that high status takes up more room than low status.

Standing with hands on hips or above the head, legs apart, head held high, straight back, ‘taking up more room’ are all high status. Hands behind back or in pockets, knees together, head bowed, stooped posture ‘taking up less room’ are low status. The same applies when seated, and this idea isn’t limited to your actual physical size, it’s tied to all the things around and even attached to you. A big desk is high status. A big car or house or boat or boots or hat or even a name, the list is a long one but let’s talk chairs for a moment.
Have you ever had a boss whose office chair looked like something off the flight deck of the S.S. Enterprise while you and the rest of the drones were given things that barely raised you above floor level? It’s a cliché because it’s common, and the boss’s chair is only one of many examples. Think of the judge in the courtroom, the umpire at Wimbledon, a royal throne, flying first class, your Uncle’s recliner – rocker that occupies most of the lounge room, the back of a limousine…you get the idea. When it comes to chairs, size really does matter.

So how does this play out in real life?
Let’s take Peter (not his real name of course), at 17 he was the eldest boy of the group. Peter, (like all of the participants), was what was known in those days as a “Ward of the State’. This meant that he had endured numerous horrors already in his short life, one result of which being that he was permanently removed from his family and placed entirely into the care and control of the State Government.

Peter understandably resented this situation and strongly felt his lack of power and prestige, his low status position in other words. He did not want to be part of the project, none of the participants did, they had all been made to enrol and Peter was absolutely determined to dislike me long before he even met me.

This was because I represented the very power elite that he felt was unfairly and unjustly controlling his whole life. Fair enough too, but how do you overcome that kind of prejudice?

Consider this: If when Peter entered that space to meet me for the very first time I was sitting up straight in the biggest chair in the room, with all of my equipment laid out on a giant table before me, and I asked him to sit in the smaller chair placed in front of me, I’ll guarantee this is what he would do…

He’d take long loose strides to the furthest of the three seater sofas, and by elongating and prostrating himself on and across it, he would effectively occupy the whole thing. It didn’t stop there though; by removing his hat and extending it in an arm over his head he could claim neighbouring territories as well, by hitting his hat on the arm of the adjacent couch or hooking his foot onto the back of a chair and rocking it back and forwards at the same time. Even the floor in front of him formed part of his domain and he’d regularly half sit and sweep the area with his feet and arms or squat on the floor with legs akimbo…what was he doing dear reader? He was trying to take up more room! And he did this solely because he felt his status was being threatened.

shutterstock_109693982 men boxingNow what would you have done in my place? (And I’m sure there are lots of parents who recognise those behaviours in their own beloved brood). Perhaps you’d react a little like my mum might have done, saying something like… “Peter! Where on earth are your manners? Sit up straight please young man and get those dirty shoes off the furniture! My Goodness! I can see we’re going to have to get a few rules straight! Hasn’t been a very good start has it?”

I’m making her sound meaner than she really was but maybe you’d be even more direct and forceful than that, and what result could I hope for from Peter? At best, I’ll get his sullen compliance. I certainly won’t get his co-operation and engagement, which is what I do want.

This is how I approached it, using the technique of Take up Less Space:
When Peter entered the room I was on my hands and knees on the floor under the table which supported the recording gear fiddling with some cables. This wasn’t an accident and there was nothing wrong with the cables, I wanted to be smaller than he was when he came in. I called out, “Hello Peter. I’m Brian. Sit down anywhere. I’m sorry. I won’t be a minute.”

Peter looked around, went straight to the couch as in the previous example and took up his high status ‘take up room’ position. I gave him a few minutes, then I got up and sat in one of the office chairs that I’d set to the lowest height, and with my head bowed and my eyes down I quietly rolled over to him and extended my hand (which he ignored) and said something like ‘Hi’. After receiving a vaguely directed grunt in reply I rolled a little further away, and we sat in silence.

shutterstock_103559129 people talkingNo, not the greatest of starts, but this is what happened next. I remained in my low status position and asked a few questions about his musical taste or abilities or something, it didn’t really matter, because within minutes, Peter’s body gradually revealed his changing status. He had assumed a high status position at the start precisely because he felt threatened and was concerned that his own status was too low…but after a while, as he subliminally absorbed my own status position, he sat up, leant forward with hands on knees and eventually got an office chair like mine and rolled over to the mixing desk with me and sat beside me in a position that absolutely mirrored my own.

Because I had demonstrated low status and didn’t react to his own high status displays with an identical reaction, he soon ‘self-levelled’ and the status relationship between us became less unequal, and remember this is something completely innate, we all do this.
The whole of our future work together hinged on that very first meeting, and I was able to save us both a lot of time and effort by just remembering that very simple tip, from my Theatre training: Take up less room.

THIS IS PART 1 OF A 3 PART SERIES. LOOK OUT FOR THE NEXT BLOG RIGHT HERE.

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