In general, language is any system of symbols and sounds (and/or gestures) that communicates information. Music has a language, math has a language, art has a language. And I’m not just talking about the words we use to talk about those things. A chord means something, an equation means something, even a color can mean something.
So we’re all making meaning all the time with all the information coming in and we want to share that meaning with other people. But often our ideas are pretty amorphous, sometimes they aren’t even clear to us, until we put words to them. When we do, they collapse into little packages that are easy to manipulate and control.
However, when we sent these packages to another human, things can go wrong. For example, the cloudy map I have for the word “nerd” in my brain may be different from yours. I think nerds are cool and I would rather be a nerd, but others may think that being a nerd is lame. And we might not even be using the same definition of the word “nerd.” So you send your little word packages to someone else and they open them up and they see something different than what you thought you put in there.
But it’s okay! Because we can minimize the differences by using Objective, Specific, and Measurable language. It’s Awesome (OSM)!
These three parameters work together to make the message you send clear and understandable. So let’s start with Objective language. Obviously you can’t be perfectly objective, but using Objective language is more about acknowledging that our perceptions are are limited and also the most reliable source of information we have in most situations. Being Objective in your speech often means framing whatever you want to say in that acknowledgement. Start sentences with “It looks to me like…” Make sure you are clear that you can only present information from your own perspective. Don’t make assumptions about how another person is feeling or what they are thinking. In addition, try to only say things that are verifiable. Some examples:
Instead of saying “No! We don’t hit!” say “That hurts me when you do that.” or “I don’t like it when you hit me.” or “Your face and your voice seem angry to me, but I expect you to find another way to express it.”
Instead of saying “Stop throwing things in the house!” say “Throwing things inside is dangerous.” or “That makes me very nervous.” Kids respond more readily to sound reasoning than direct orders. They like to feel that they are making their own choices. We can only give them reasons to make the choices we want.
Specificity is important for obvious reasons. Everything you say to kids is giving them information which they integrate with everything they already know. In order to use new information effectively, they need as much detail as you can provide. When giving feedback, try to point out the particular choices and behaviors that you want to reinforce or discourage. We use the words “good” and “bad” (and “better” and “worse” and “best” and “worst”) a lot, but their meanings are so vague that they mean almost nothing on their own. Try to be specific about what is good or bad about a thing or behavior. Instead of good, try generous, kind, thoughtful, careful, observant, constructive, resourceful, effective, useful, helpful, loving, patient, etc. Instead of bad, try selfish, unkind, unwise, inattentive, unfocused, destructive, ineffective, aggressive, hurtful, counterproductive, unsafe, dangerous, impatient, etc. It can still be effective to use good or bad, but only if you pair it with something specific, like “good noticing” or “good effort”. These alternative words are also more objective and verifiable.
The parameter of Measurable is probably the most important because it ensures that you and your child have the same information. Try to work with information that could potentially be presented as data. For example Instead of asking a child how to describe their feelings where they are in crisis, try asking about what they are experiencing in their bodies. A physical phenomenon is easier to collect data about and therefore can be more easily communicated without distortion. When giving directions, establish measurable goals. Instead of saying “You need to move faster” say “I’m counting down from 20 and you should be ready when I get to 0.”
It’s hard to talk like this all the time. You have to stay very cognitively active and attentive so we’re bound to forget or get lazy sometimes, and that’s okay. The more you use it intentionally, the more you will begin to use it habitually and automatically. Think of a phrase you say over and over to your child. Why isn’t it getting through to them? Maybe it’s because they don’t actually know what it means. Or because you haven’t given them any reason to believe what you’re saying. Kids love reasons. Give them good reasons using OSM language and they can make more effective, constructive, and pro-social decisions.