How we speak can determine whether others listen

Once a year I attend Career Day at a local high school. I’m a marriage mediator and on my first visit I was excited to share this new kind of career with the students, but the school is in a rough neighborhood in South Philly, and I was in for a rude awakening.

 

After collecting all of the volunteers in the cafeteria, we were each escorted by ROTC students in full uniform to our first of three classrooms. We had a half hour to share our work lives with each class. When I entered my first class, I was buffeted by the cacophony of noise, while the half of the students who weren’t fighting or screaming were sleeping (it was a bit early in the morning for me as well!)

 

The teacher, on seeing me, stopped yelling at the unruly crowd, and made a dash for the door like an escaped prisoner. The kids paused for a moment, seeming to take my measure, and I sensed I had only a few seconds in which to make my mark.

I should mention that to add to my effectiveness as a marriage mediator, I studied hypnotism, so as to be able to reach beneath the stories some couples have spun about each other and help them get back to the affection and regard they have for each other.

This part of my training kicked in during the short break the students provided me. “What would it feel like in your body … ” I said, and then after too long a pause, “if by the tone in your father’s voice…” spoken too quickly, “you could tell that he … ” another longer pause, and then v-e-r-y slowly: “deeply loved, and respected your mother.”

By the time I arrived at the end of this completely spontaneous incantation, all eyes were upon me – even the “sleepers” in the back of the room rose up to look at me. I had their attention in a way far beyond what even I had expected.

“And that is what I do for a living. I’m a marriage mediator…” I began, and they listened, and they asked questions, and at the end of my half hour, one of them shouted out, “You were awesome!”

In each of the next two classrooms I spoke to that year, and each year subsequently, I walked in, put the class in this same state of respectful curiosity, and had delightful dialogs about mediation, marriage and their lives.

“They should really be teaching this stuff to teachers,” I thought, “and parents, for that matter.” So that’s why I now teach classes on how to use language, cadence, respect and the natural affinity children have to live in their imaginations to make school easier and more productive for both teachers and their students.

Max Rivers is CEO of Two Rivers Meditation in Mt. Airy.

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