How to talk to teenagers and other life forms – Part two: Attention to the Partner


Hello again dear reader. Before we launch into Part Two of ‘How to Talk to Teenagers and Other Life Forms’ here’s a little Actor’s Predicament for you to consider…

Suppose you’re an actor and you have auditioned and landed a role (Joy unconfined! Break out the Chateau Cardboard honey! We eat tonight!) in a production of a stage play. Well sooner or later you will have to memorise your lines. Actors and directors differ in what stage of the rehearsal period they prefer to be ‘off the book’, but nevertheless, if you’re still cramming in the wings just before your entrance on opening night then you’ve probably left it a little too late!

Pic 1So you, the actor learn your lines. You learn lots of the other characters’ lines too of course, so that you hit your cues properly, and you certainly know from moment to moment what happens next. The fact that the butler did it is actually not a surprise to you because you’ve read the bloody play; you’ve rehearsed it for weeks and studied it inside out. The predicament lies in the fact that you are meant to speak and respond to these words as if you were hearing them for the very first time.

Your character’s reaction to the revelations of the butler’s grisly misdeeds is meant to be one of shock, horror and disbelief, even though you the actor recognise it as simply page sixty three of the script. How can you hear these words for the umpteenth time yet still act as though they were completely fresh and new to your ears?

One of the techniques actors employ to help them in this respect is called Attention to the Partner and it is inextricably linked to the concept of Status Transactions.



You might remember that in the first part of this article I discussed some techniques from the world of Actor Training that I used to good effect when working with a group of disadvantaged youth in a music project in Bondi sometime last century. (And if you didn’t catch Part One then shame on you! Go back to the site and read it now and we’ll wait for you…on second thought don’t…it’s not that important…I’ll just bring you up to speed…the rest of them won’t remember anyway…)

Pic 2Status in human society is not fixed, it’s fluid. No matter who we are or what position we hold in life we all transact status, we give it away and we assume it from others all the time. We do this in order to get more of what we want and these transactions are normally occurring at a subliminal level (that is, below the level of our conscious awareness).

Status transactions are largely centred in our Reptile Brain (see Part 1) and this is also the main player in our Limbic or ‘Fight or Flight’ response. The important thing to remember is that threats to my status are perceived by my Reptile Brain as simply threats! Your Lizard brain can’t tell the difference between a threat to status and a bear! Both will trigger the same response. Rational thinking is not the Reptile Brain’s department, and anything I can do to calm this subconscious limbic reaction will be to my advantage in communicating with you.

Ok. So I introduced you to a few aspects around the concept of Status Transactions, namely:




We discussed ways of adjusting status by taking up more or less room, (with particular reference to the ‘magic of chairs’ as I recall), last time, and now I’d like to move on to the second technique, which is of course Attention to the Partner.



When I pay attention to you I raise your status. When I ignore you I lower your status and raise my own. As I described earlier, with these kids I was concentrating on giving them status rather than assuming more myself. Remember that I was already very high status in this situation.

I had Institutional Status since I was employed by the Government Department that was their legal guardian; I was being paid and they weren’t, which gave me a kind of Professional Status; I was the ‘Teacher’ and they were ‘Students’; I was older than them and they were expected to follow my instructions which could be seen as a kind of Parental Status; I was a more experienced player than them; my instrument cost more; in many many ways I already had High Status.

My strategy was to try and increase the clients’ status as much as I could, in order to get more of the behaviour (co-operative, creative, inventive etc.) that I wanted.

One of the techniques I used was Attention to the Partner.

Pic 3


So how do you pay attention to someone?

Most people would say that the surest way of telling if someone is paying attention to them, is that they are looking at them. ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you Brian!” was a phrase I heard a lot growing up, but even then I realised that the fact I am looking at you in no way guarantees that I’m hearing a single word you’re saying. I could be a million miles away inside my own head regardless of where my gaze happens to be, (much to my parents’ and teachers’ dismay).

So that’s our first point: You don’t have to be looking at me to be paying attention. Let me show you something…

Close your eyes for a minute…Well not right now!…I need you to read this bit first…I’ll say ‘When’…ok?

All I’d like you to do is close your eyes for about 20 seconds and count how many different sounds you can hear. You don’t have to remember what they are…just how many…alright…’When’.

How many did you get? Were there more than you thought? I’m at home at the moment but I still got an easy thirteen or so: Wind, an ibis, lorikeets and peewees, an aeroplane, a car and a Harley on the coast road, the ceiling fan, my neighbour washing up dishes, the neighbour on the other side playing Cold Chisel, the chair creaking, my breathing and the refrigerator’s compressor.

Were there sounds you were unaware of before you listened for them? Did you find that concentrating on only one sense, (your hearing) seemed to increase its power or receptivity? And you didn’t need your eyes to be able to concentrate your attention did you? No. You just had to actively listen.

Pic 4Actors train to be able to actively listen in this way more readily (and with their eyes open!) and this is one of the ways I can use to solve the Actor’s Predicament outlined earlier. If I actively listen to my onstage partner it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard him do the ‘Butler Speech’ on page sixty three, he will still do it differently every single time.

This is because we’re all human and no-one can precisely reproduce the spoken word. There will be nuances and differences to do with volume, phrasing, pauses, inflections, elements of musicality including pitch, tempo, dynamics and so on. As an actor, if I’m listening closely, not so much to the words themselves (which I already know), but instead to the sound of the words; then I can hear the differences, no matter how small, between the way my partner is saying it now and how he said it last night or a hundred times before.

This active listening not only helps my fellow actor (because by focussing on him, I’m raising his status, which relaxes him and makes it easier for him to concentrate on what he’s doing, to be ‘in the moment’ as they say), it also serves to focus the audience’s attention on him as well, and makes it far easier for me to be genuinely surprised when he reveals that Jeeves has been butchering the guests.

How does this theatrical technique translate to the real world?



Remember my group of teens? Remember their reluctance to be there in the first place? This played out mostly in one of two ways.

Some would choose silence as a form of protest. This too is a status transaction of course; if I refuse to speak to you I am taking status from you, I’m saying ‘You’re not worth talking to’. For these kids this behaviour was driven by the same subliminal attempts to gain status that made them sprawl over the furniture and take up as much room as they could. So how do you deal with someone who refuses to talk?

Most people are uncomfortable with silence. Particularly when we meet someone for the first time we tend to fill silence with conversation because it feels awkward or somehow socially unacceptable not to. The handy hint for you here is: Don’t be afraid of the Pregnant Pause! (And lovers of the great Harold Pinter’s work will recognise my little theatrical reference there…Never heard of him? Well I can’t do everything for you dear reader…perhaps you could look him up…honestly…kids these days…).

Pic 5The most effective response to silence is actually silence. It cuts both ways. If you’re uncomfortable with silence then try to remember that so are they! Even when they’re using it as a weapon in a kind of Status Wars the whole point of the tactic is to gain a reaction from you! Their silence is intended to make you try and coax them into talking. If you simply respond with silence I can guarantee they’ll have to abandon that tactic and try something else. All this requires is patience, and even I have more patience than the average teenager.

The important thing here is that though I was silent, I was not ignoring them. I was in fact giving them all of my active attention. I was listening in the way you just tried for yourself, I concentrated on the sounds they were making and the other sounds that were present in the environment.

Although I did look at them occasionally I was careful not to stare or hold eye contact for very long. Remember you didn’t need your eyesight to be able to focus your audio attention a minute ago, and anyway humans are very careful about how we use eye contact, there are unwritten rules! How we use our eye focus, what Shakespeare called ‘the windows to the soul’ is a topic for another time, for the moment though, it’s simple: Don’t stare! And whatever you do, never say ’Look at me when I’m talking to you!’

I would still offer up conversational opening gambits to these clients, but when I was met with silence in reply I’d take as long as I could before trying again, and in between those offers I would concentrate my active attention on them. Eventually, (and for some of them it could take a while), their subliminal awareness of my attention, which is status-enhancing, meant that they began to calm and relax, and their Limbic System Response would lessen and they would start to talk.

The ones who weren’t silent were often quite garrulous and talkative and would try to enhance their own status by non-stop assertive statements mostly to do with (a) How unfair it all was, (b) How I wasn’t the boss of them and I couldn’t make them do anything they didn’t want to and (c) See (a).

No matter how they began, once they did start talking I gave them my attention. Once again, I wasn’t listening for the words they were saying, or for the meaning of those words. They were all reading from the same ‘script’ in a way and I saw no benefit in entering into a debate with them about issues which were beyond my control. Instead I listened for the sound of what they said…I might count the number of times that one would say the word ‘like’ in the course of sentence; or I’d try and pick where their accent was from or what their favourite swear word was, or the TV shows they watched or whatever….

This doesn’t mean I didn’t comprehend what they were saying, of course I did, but it wasn’t my prime concern since I had no intention of discussing or rebutting any of their arguments, valid or not! I had no need to plan a response. My response was simply to make them the very centre of my attention and their young but very ancient reptile brains reacted to me giving them status in this way by lessening their limbic response and allowing their New Mammal Brains to join the party, which is exactly where I needed them to be if we were going to make some Art together!

Pic 6There you have it. Attention to the Partner 101. Try it for yourself. The next time you’re in a meeting where one of those present is someone you are having problems or communication issues with, just try giving them your active attention for the whole time. You may well be surprised when this person (very often immediately after the meeting) approaches you with some kind of friendly offer or overture. I use Attention to the Partner techniques in every aspect of my life and it often makes communication more effective.

The technique works because it’s happening subconsciously and it taps into another aspect of our brain’s evolutionary history: The Power of Concession and Reciprocation, which is all about Offers and how to make and accept them, and is the subject of the Third and Final part of How to Talk to Teenagers (and other Life Forms), where I hope you’ll join us next time.


Would you like to know more about how Brian can work with your company/team… click here