Why did you decide to write the book?
When I wrote my first book, "Life's Greatest Lessons," I had a chapter in it called "Kind Words Cost Little But Accomplish Much," and I got a lot of nice feedback. People told me it made them think more about what they were saying. I was also inspired by a guy I taught with more than thirty years ago who never said anything negative--everything he had to say was positive. He chose to focus on what was good. He had a very positive effect on people around him because you knew he was never going to drag you down. He was a very affirming person.
Does being affirming mean sometimes having to lie? For example, if a friend asks you, "Does this dress look pretty?" but you really think it's ugly, what do you say?
I think what you have to do is to choose your words carefully. I really don't think you should lie, but at the same time you don't want to be so blunt that you devastate the other person. I'd try to say something diplomatic like, "Well, the important thing is, do you like it?" or "Are you comfortable in it?" And sometimes it does help to be honest too. If somebody says, "Am I a good singer?" and that person is not, don't build their hopes up. [You could say], "Maybe you could get a voice coach."
In an educational environment, isn't it more productive to focus on the bad so that improvements can be made?
Well, I think it's a balance of the two. If you turn in a paper and it has a lot of grammatical errors, those have to be corrected. But at the same time it may have some really good content. I would make those corrections and then I would say, "Grammar can be easily corrected, but you've got some real nice content here. We just need to clean up the way you have written about it."
Whether you're a coach, a teacher, a parent, or an employer, I think you do need to correct people and get them going in the right direction. But I think at the same time you can point out their strengths.
As an educator, have you noticed a change over the years in how your students acted-their manners and how they acted toward you and each other?
The single biggest change in 35 years of teaching was the change in manners. I started teaching in 1966, and manners were never an issue until about the 1980s. Then all of a sudden, things were changing and the language was becoming a little more filthy and a little more mean-spirited and rude. I'd just address the issue at the beginning of every school year. On the very first day of school I'd say, "Let's talk about manners. How many of you have ever heard of the Golden Rule?"
We'd have a big discussion on it, and I gave a handout about what kids used to do and what they do today. For instance, years ago if a kid was missing a page in his notebook he would say in a nice way, "Excuse me, Mr. Urban, may I have page 14?" I'd say "Yes" and he'd say, "Thank you." That used to be known as common courtesy. But somewhere in the 1980s, kids started saying, "I need page 14." Very, very different tone of voice, different words. This "I need" came across as very demanding and even demeaning to me-but they didn't realize they were doing that.
Why do you think that in the '80s there was a decline in manners?
Well society-wise it actually started in the late '60s. I think there were a number of things happening in the late '60s. There was the "free-speech" movement, which some people call the "filthy speech movement." And then we had a lot of turmoil in our society. You had the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War and a lot of angry people. And the movies went to the ratings system for reality's sake and all of a sudden, there was the "f" word and all those other words, and people were just kind of encouraged to let it all hang out. I think that's kind of when it started, and then it kind of just filtered down to kids. And we got a steady proliferation of coarse and mean-spirited language.
I'm interested to see that you addressed the Columbine tragedy. After the shootings the principal instituted a "zero tolerance policy" toward teasing and verbal harassment. But you don't seem optimistic about policies like that. Why not?
I don't think that's the way to approach it. I think the way to approach it is to be proactive rather than reactive. In Stephen Covey's book, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," habit number one is be proactive, which means take a positive step ahead of time so you can prevent something really bad from happening. I think if I was the principal at Columbine High School, I would get together with all my teachers and say, "We obviously now know that words can really devastate people, and we need to have some good discussions at the beginning of the year with our kids. They understand what happened and how it started. How can we use more positive and affirming language, especially for those kids who are a little bit different?" If you raise their consciousness, get them talking about it and help them understand that this is win-win, you'll have much more success than saying, "If you tease somebody about his hair, you're going to be suspended for a week."
Can you give a few tips on how people can change negative language?
Be more aware of the impact that your words can have on another person. That's number one. Just think a little bit before you say something, especially when something upsets you and you're likely to lash out. That's a really good time to just stop and think, "Hey, do I want to pour kerosene on the fire? Do I want to make things worse, or do I want to say something that's going to make things better?" And then number two is to deliberately choose to look for opportunities to say something affirming to another person.
One of my [favorite words] is "affirm." Affirm means looking for and finding the good and bringing out the best in other people. I've been blessed with a lot of affirming people in my life and hope that I am one myself. Two other words that I really love are "opportunity" and "possibilities." As a teacher I always taught my students to look upon things as opportunities, for example, to look at school as an opportunity rather than an obligation. That's a much different way of approaching school.
And I always told them to think in terms of possibilities when they would tell me about obstacles or limitations. Every great achievement in the history of the human race started as an idea in somebody's head, and that person was thinking in terms of possibilities, not obstacles.
My least favorite [words] are anything that's mean-spirited. Not too long ago I was in a store and a little kid did something wrong-which kids do when they're not supervised-and the mother screamed at him, "You idiot!" Those kinds of things can stick for a long time.