Kerrying On

How to Nail a Difficult Social Script

The following article was first published on September 17, 2008.

The doorbell rang and Becca, my then seven-year-old daughter, skidded up to the door, opened it, and found her best friend Crystal standing there. “Can you come out and play?” Crystal asked.

“No!” Becca abruptly responded. And then our sweet, sensitive, and normally thoughtful daughter slammed the door in Crystal’s face. I was mortified. How could this have happened? When had Becca become so rude? I asked her what was going on.

“I’d like to play with Crystal,” Becca explained, “But Mom says I have to clean my room first.”

“Do you have any idea how Crystal felt when you slammed the door in her face?” I asked.

“No,” Becca said as she blinked her eyes in confusion. “Well, let’s go take a look.” I walked Becca upstairs and looked out the window where the two of us spotted Crystal walking back to her house with a gate and demeanor that said, “My best friend just rejected me.”

“It looks like she feels bad,” Becca commented.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“You just implied that you didn’t want to play with her and then you slammed the door in her face. That can hurt.”

“Oh,” Becca responded with a frown.

“What could you have done instead?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” Becca offered with a weak smile.

At first I thought Becca was trying to avoid a scolding by claiming ignorance, but I quickly realized that she wasn’t playing a game. She really didn’t have a clue. And why is that? Because as a member of the human species, Becca was born with a tabula rasa—or “blank slate.” Her brain didn’t come hard-wired with all sorts of knowledge. She certainly wasn’t born with the knowledge of how to handle a peer’s request to play with her when she already had conflicting orders from her mother.

Contrast my daughter’s blank slate with, say, your typical guppy. When baby guppies, or “fry,” are first born, they immediately swim to a piece of plant-life. Then they undulate next to the plant in perfect synchronization as the plant moves in the current. They disguise themselves in this manner because they are born to parents who don’t nurture and protect them, but rather hunt them down and eat them. The bad news: tough parenting. The good news: guppy parents imbue their offspring with knowledge before birth that serves them the rest of their lives. The second they are born, guppy fry know how to hide themselves, swim to perfection, feed themselves, etc.

Humans aren’t born with such instincts. This gives them the invaluable ability to make choices. However, this ability comes at a heavy cost. Humans’ tabula rasa makes them both ignorant and vulnerable. Humans aren’t born street-wise like the leery guppy.

In order to survive, human parents have to protect their young for a long time. In fact, humans are given what has been labeled an “extended” childhood. They are treated as tots for much longer than any other living creature. (And with the advent of the in-home theater, big-screen TV, and video games, human childhood now often extends into the 30s. But that’s another issue.)

I mention this whole tabula rasa deal because as a parent, I often expect my own children to know things that they have no way of knowing. Becca didn’t know the polite and effective way of saying “I can’t play right now.” She wasn’t born with this knowledge and she hadn’t learned that particular script from people she had observed. But for some reason, I expected her to know it. Fortunately, I caught myself before I chastised Becca and decided to teach her how to better handle the situation.

“Let’s role-play,” I suggested to Becca who looked back at me with suspicion. “I’ll go outside, ring the doorbell, and ask you to come out and play. What could you say to me that wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”

Once again Becca peered up and shyly admitted, “I don’t know.” I kept forgetting. Becca didn’t have this script in hand yet. I’d have to help her out a bit.

“How about this?” I suggest. “You say: ‘I’d like to play with you, but Mom says I have to clean my room first. Afterward I’ll come over and get you.’ This lets Crystal know that you’re excited to see her but have to do something first.”

I step outside and ring our doorbell. Becca opens the door and I cheerfully inquire, “Can you come out and play?”

Becca repeats back to me the exact words I told her. She’s on the right track. Unfortunately, she says the right words in a rather abrupt tone.

“Try it again,” I suggest. “This time, smile when you say it.” So she tries it again. “Now, this time, emphasize the word ‘like.’” She tries the interaction one more time and nails it.

I took a moment to teach my daughter a social-interaction script. I didn’t wait for her to pick it up from the street or awkwardly fashion one of her own. I didn’t talk about it in the abstract. Instead, I used what is known as deliberate practice. I suggested a specific set of actions and words. I live-modeled the actions. Becca then tried the actions on her own and I gave her immediate feedback. She tried again and I gave her more feedback. Only after she mastered the script—both words and delivery—did I stop.

Right now, tens of thousands of people are attending workshops and seminars that teach leadership, parenting, and other human-interaction skills. Participants frequently attend these courses with the expectation that they’ll learn how to better perform as a leader or parent. But most training participants will only be taught how to think like a leader or parent. There will be no scripts or practice. There will be no feedback. People attending traditional classes will learn theories, not master new behaviors.

Exclusively cognitive (as opposed to cognitive and behavioral) instructional methods continue to remain popular despite the fact that much of what should be taught is behavioral in nature. Leaders and parents do a lot of behaving, and just like my daughter who needed deliberate practice in order to master the door script, they require instructional methods to master the leadership and parental scripts they’ll need to survive.

Imagine if people took this attitude when learning how to figure skate. Suppose that you’re a gifted skater and a potential student asks you to coach her, but with the following request. “I want to learn how to be a master figure skater, but please don’t demonstrate what I need to do. If you do demonstrate, don’t ask me to watch. If you do ask me to watch you do something, don’t ask me to do it. If you do ask me to do it, don’t give me feedback. And finally, if you do give me feedback, wait a long time—and then make it vague.”

If you want to learn how to do something, you must observe prototypes, practice what you observed, receive detailed and clear feedback, practice again, and receive more feedback. Anything short of this and you’re tinkering, not learning.

So I got it right that morning with Becca. I recognized that she didn’t know how to handle the door script. She hadn’t been born with the idea firmly wired into her brain and after watching others in action, her tabula was still pretty rasa. I didn’t lecture Becca about what to do. Instead, we engaged in deliberate practice.

I wish I had done more of that—not that Becca didn’t grow into a sensitive and caring adult. She did. It’s just, I wonder what the world would be like if adults, parent, leaders, and training designers alike didn’t merely offer up heaps of generic advice or clever lectures on changing behaviors, but instead actually taught and coached effective behaviors? One can only imagine.