Finding the Right Words to Say to Students

Every day, teachers, coaches, counselors and parents enter their new day prepared to speak certain words to the students they’ll encounter. Knowing we’ll likely meet up with some “attitudes” in the hallways or the classroom, we rehearse specific thoughts in our minds and sometimes even have those conversations ahead of time on our drive to work.

Today—I’d like to talk about the words you didn’t rehearse, but need to say.

Effective leaders of students are brilliant at reading situations and finding the right words to say in those moments. They recognize that a troubled student who looks down at the floor may just need a little extra belief or support from her teacher. When they hear an angry athlete cuss like a sailor, they realize he might just need some empathy from his coach. Like a person tuning in to a radio station in their car to get a clear signal, they attune to the student in front of them and give them what they need (not necessarily what they deserve or earn).

And they get results.

This is just a friendly reminder of what you already know, but may have forgotten. Effective leaders and teachers live with their antennas up. They discern teachable moments among students and offer a timely and fitting word that influences the student profoundly. They recognize that students learn on a need-to-know basis.

  • This kind of teacher can see beyond the lesson plan or curriculum.
  • This kind of administrator sees outside the written meeting agenda.
  • This kind of dean discerns the proper time to pause and discuss an idea.
  • This kind of coach addresses the real need in the moment, not just a felt need.
  • This kind of counselor understands that the student in their office does not have an innate need to get their way, but does have a need to be heard.

You’re My Secret Weapon

J.T. Thoms works on our team at Growing Leaders. When he first started, I marveled at how confidently he carried himself, even in his mid-twenties. He told me the story of a conversation he had with his father years ago. J.T. grew up in a home of over-achievers. His brothers and cousins were stellar. Two were division one athletes in college, smart and poised on and off the field. J.T. was smaller and didn’t seem to measure up. He found himself trying to keep up with his brothers and falling short.

That is until one day, when his dad took him aside and got some time alone with him. Having observed what was going on, his dad spoke with J.T. that day about the unique qualities he possessed: the talent he had that his brothers did not; the value he added that others may not have noticed… but his dad did. As the conversation closed, his dad looked at J.T. and said, “Son, you’re my secret weapon.”

J.T. never forgot that conversation as a teen. In fact, he held on to it. They were words from a wise dad, spoken at the right moment that paid off big time later.

J.T.’s father simply understood that his young son needed to clarify his identity. He had to distinguish himself from his talented brothers in order to become the best version of himself. In the end, his father imparted simple words that set J.T. in motion to pursue his potential. He saw himself as a “secret weapon.”

What We Must Do…

In order to become versed in this art as a leader, I must first get over myself, my prejudice, and a preoccupation with my own agenda. I recognize we’re required to have an agenda, and often, it revolves around students. But I learned long ago that my agenda (while given to me by administrators above me) doesn’t always take into account what my students most need in the moment. Author Daniel Goleman writes, “In short, self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so, seem smaller, as we increase our capacity for connection and compassionate action.”

We must see the big picture and think long term—but live in the moment.

Try These Steps

Dr. Brene Brown, psychology professor and researcher at the University of Houston, shares four simple steps that I try to take each time I’m with a student who’s facing a need or is experiencing conflict. The steps are simple yet profound:

  1. Take on their perspective as truth.

In other words, I try to get over my own fixation with my view and listen.

  1. Suspend my own judgment.

Instead of judging them instantly, I try to drop that instinct to be objective and open.

  1. Recognize their emotion.

I step into their shoes and actually try to feel their emotion and perception.

  1. Communicate that emotion.

When it’s time, I try to relay that emotion back to them, to empathize and validate.

It’s at this point that you create a connection and can work toward a solution. The good news is, once you’ve taken these steps, you can actually work together toward that solution, rather than be at odds. You’re allies, not enemies.

Getting Started…

I recognize this is only a reminder, but I suggest you return to this M.O….

  • In every encounter, listen to the person’s heart, not just their words. What is not being said verbally but is being screamed visually?
  • Communicate you feel and understand what the other person’s experiencing. Identify, empathize, and validate before you address an issue.
  • Find a metaphor that communicates a hopeful idea. In J.T.’s case, his dad used the term “secret weapon,” and it has guided J.T. for over a decade.

The “right word” is about using the right term at the right time with the right team.

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Finding the Right Words to Say to Students