Communication helps people through important life and work transitions. Using the transition from childhood to adulthood, author and former Stanford Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Julie Lythcott-Haims and I discuss valuable best practices for empowering others through effective communication. Please listen in to the latest Stanford GSB podcast episode on Think Fast Talk Smart to learn more.
“Communication is such a delicate dance and kids need to emerge from childhood having practiced,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former associate vice provost of undergraduate education Stanford University.
In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams sits down with Lythcott-Haimsopen in new window to discuss her new book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, and ideas on how to communicate with young people so they feel empowered to take on the various (and often intimidating) duties of adulthood.
“Responsibility isn’t a bad thing,” she says. “Responsibility is actually an amazing thing. And I think we have to do a better job of narrating that truth.”
Matt Abrahams: This podcast is dedicated to helping people deal with everyday business challenges with confidence and conviction. However, today we’re going to take a different tack. We’re going to look at another challenge that many of us face helping teenagers become adults. And the things that we learn in this conversation will actually help us do better in the workplace. I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. I am really looking forward to speaking with Julie Lythcott-Haims. Julie is multitalented, a lawyer by training and a former dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford. She is now a much sought after speaker and the author of the award winning book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overprinting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Julie now has a new book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. Thanks for being here, Julie.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Matt, thanks so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to communicating with you today.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Meet me, too. Let’s jump right in. Can you define what you mean by the term adult thing and can you share some of the challenges parents and kids face during the transition to adulthood?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Sure thing. Well, I guess I need to start by giving a nod to the millennial generation. They’re the ones who coined the verb adult. I don’t want to adult. I don’t know how to adult; adulting is scary. And their anguish, their angst over not knowing how or wanting to is really what led me to write this thing. And then I had to examine what adult meant. And I came up with this as the definition adult thing is simply the phase of life between childhood and death, where you’re not dependent upon other people to plan, chart, fix, manage, handle the stuff of life for you where you have this delicious freedom and independence and, oh, the terrifying knowledge that, hey, it’s kind of on me to figure this out, which is not to say any of us ever has to go it alone. So that’s what adult thing is. And the challenges when it comes to parents and kids is as parents, we grew this child in our body perhaps, or adopted into our family or our partner gave birth to it. And we are completely responsible in those early months and years. But over the course of that child’s life, we’re supposed to be slowly moving from being completely in charge of their life to turning the reins over to them. And I think this big leap from the end of high school, the start of college, the start of work, the start of military life, whatever awaits after high school is to leap over a chasm in some ways. I mean, there’s a sense that, oh, my gosh, there’s a big gap I might fall into or, you know, I might not make it. And of course, that’s not literally true. But I think it’s an important moment for us as parents to be preparing for to be thinking, OK, what do I want to have confidence my kid can do when they’re no longer living in our home, when I’m no longer the primary one responsible for their food and their shelter and and their day to day well-being. We want to be parenting in the teenage years and even earlier toward the inevitability that we all want this young person to be a freestanding adult who can fend for themselves one day.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, and it is so fraught with challenges. I am going through this now as a parent myself, it sounds like it’s really balancing between freedom and responsibility, both for parents as well as for kids. What advice and guidance do you have for helping parents and kids communicate about some of these challenges in achieving this balance?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: You’re absolutely right that it’s freedom and responsibility. I can hear John Hennessy, who was president when I worked at Stanford, every year giving the graduation speech and really helping the graduates understand that with this freedom and independence comes responsibility. Responsibility isn’t a bad thing. Responsibility is actually an amazing thing. And I think we parents have to do a better job of narrating to that truth. That is, you’re going to be more, you’re going to be responsible for more of your own things. You’re going to be responsible for making sure your homework is in its bag and taken to school. You’re going to be responsible for making your own lunch. You’re going to be responsible for making your own doctor’s appointments, conveying the expectation that these things will be turned over to the kid and that that’s not a bad thing. You’re actually trusting that they either can already or can almost handle that task. It’s really by handing somebody some additional responsibility, which we’re supposed to be doing increasingly over the years of childhood. We’re actually signaling, I believe you can, and that turns out to be a really important indicator of a person’s wellness. And to which they believe they can do the task in front of them so that a vote of confidence from a parent saying, hey, you’re going to be responsible for this now, as long as it’s done kindly, as opposed to feeling like your parent has turned your back on you. It’s really quite empowering to be given additional responsibility. And that’s how, you know, the freedom and the responsibility really nicely then go together.
Matt Abrahams: So it sounds to me like part of the challenge is to set clear expectations along the way, but also to think about the tone in which you’re communicating those messages so that as you’re having these conversations, you’re being supportive, but also very clear about what is happening now and will happen in the future. Is that right?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Exactly right. I mean, I think we’re at our best when we’re parenting, when we’re providing unconditional love, a tremendous amount of empathy, optimism that the kid is going to be able to make their way. So the tone of voice, the body language needs to be that of a compassionate yet emotionally somewhat distant adult. And this may sound a bit odd to people. Aren’t parents supposed to be very close to our kids? And kind of, why would you advocate for psychological distance? What I’m responding to is the overprinting tendency, which, as you know, your homework needs to get done. You need to get away. You need to get into this college or go off and do this career so that I feel OK as a parent. That’s a psychological intertwined-ness that’s actually really unhealthy for both the kid and for the parent. The more healthy distance is when you can care very much about how they are. You can offer help and guidance, but you’re not feeling that you own every single thing that they do, whether it’s their homework or their activities or their college applications. It’s we want to be in this place where our child has the agency, the autonomy to kind of make their own way and have their experiences, make their choices fall a little bit here and there, pick themselves up and be stronger based on what they experienced. And our tone needs to be even and positive, optimistic, kind and loving, but never nudging them. Why are you doing it better? You know, we expect better of you or and certainly not being, you know, disinterested. It’s sort of like, picture how loving you can be with your niece and nephew or your best friend’s kid where you care about the kid, but you don’t feel obligated to tell them precisely what to do all the time and you don’t feel obligated to solve their problems. That’s the healthy psychological distance I think we’re going for. Actually, as parents.
Matt Abrahams: I really like that image. That will be very helpful to me and hopefully many other folks. And I like how you highlighted. It’s not just about what you say, but how you say it, that nonverbal openness is really critical. We have on this podcast talked about improvisation in lots of different ways to help people be present oriented, to help people feel more comfortable speaking spontaneously. You talk about adopting principles from improv and design thinking to help when people feel stuck. Can you tell us more about this and how this can help?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah, so a lot of people who are trying to spread their wings and enter adult land feel stuck. And I think part of that is the sense that I have to know what I’m doing in advance. I have to be really good at it before I even start. Kind of a perfectionistic tendency. I have to know what I want. I have to know who I am. And I think an overarching message of this new book, your turn is, hey, you don’t have to know. You don’t have to have it all figured out. The point is just start to move in the direction of something. And so both from the school folks and from improv more broadly, I borrowed the language bias toward action and anywhere. And I think whether you’re a designer or whether you’re an improv actor trying to entertain an audience, it’s just all about, let’s go. Let’s just try something. This about being perfect. This is just about what can happen when we leave this point. We’re stuck in or standing in our comfort zone, perhaps, or are our stuck zone perhaps, and just take a step in any direction. You will learn something. You will have an experience. You will, you know, analyze the data, how you felt, you know, what you might do differently. And all of that begins to create some velocity forward.
Matt Abrahams: The bias towards action is such a powerful lesson from both design thinking and improv. And it plays out in lots of ways in our relationships and in our communication. There’s a corollary to that notion, which is, you know, good is great, good enough as great. And it’s this notion that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. And one of the reasons we don’t. Move forward is we’re afraid it won’t go the way we want or it won’t be as good as it could be, and just giving ourselves permission to move forward is really, really powerful. In your book, Your Turn, you have a chapter entitled “Start Talking to Strangers.” Can you explain the advice you give in this chapter and share any breath best practices you have that can help people use communication to connect with others?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah, I think that chapter opens by saying this or in the first couple of paragraphs, this may be the most obvious point I make in the book, but every human is a stranger to you. At the outset. I’m deliberately subverting the childhood norm. Don’t talk to strangers which young adults were raised with and making the point that this was an overbroad rule. The rule should have been learned. Let me teach you how to discern the one creepy stranger from the vast majority of humans who are perfectly fine child. Let me let you walk through the world with me, watching how I discern whether a stranger is OK to talk to. Instead, we’ve given this overbroad rule. Don’t talk to strangers and many, many, many, many young people really don’t know how to be. They feel afraid. They feel unsure. They feel something’s wrong if stranger is trying to talk to them. And that’s way if there’s anything that’s inhibiting or really preventing a normal, free flowing conversation between people who’ve not previously met this mantra, don’t talk to strangers, maybe it. Yeah, well, you know, we shouldn’t like it like it. Rules rarely apply, right. Instinct about how to approach somebody. You’re going to have to talk to strangers when you leave your family home. You’re going to go to a college or a community college or the workplace where the military there will be people who have information that you need. There will be people who can help you on your path. There will be people that you can help. And, you know, all of those things are going to require us opening our mouths and talking to this person. But that’s not all. I mean, we’ve got to be respectful toward this other person. We’ve got to also have a sense of how to advocate for ourselves. Communication is such a delicate dance and kids need to emerge from childhood having practiced. Matt, here’s a fascinating thing that I end up putting in the pages of Your Turn that I got from psychologist and Stanford alum Lori Gottlieb. So many young adults don’t know how to communicate with their significant others or their boyfriend or girlfriend, the person they’re dating. And they show up in her therapy practice and they say, oh, I broke up with my boyfriend. We had an argument and he wasn’t a hundred percent there for me. So I just I dropped him. And she says, Julie, here’s what I think is going on. Their childhood communication conversations were so regulated by well-meaning parents, teachers, other adults who sorted out difficulties when kids weren’t getting along on the playground or on a playdate, who gave the kids language to use to talk to the other kids. Not trusting the kids could ever figure this out themselves with a bit of guidance, right. A lot of adults did that handling. Now we’ve got a set of young adults who haven’t had that practice on the playground and play dates in group play with their peers. And they think that when someone loves them, it means I’ll drop everything to support you. You know, parents basically behave that way, right? You’re not have school. I’ll go argue with the teacher for you. And instead of letting the student practice the child practice how to have a difficult conversation with somebody so they become this young adult who who doesn’t have the skills to communicate in what we would call run of the mill situations, a conversation with a friend, a conversation with with a lover, a conversation with the with a colleague or a boss. We’ve got to let our kids know we need to want for our kids to practice, practice, practice, communicating with their fellow humans well before they ever leave our homes if they’re to make it in the world one day.
Matt Abrahams: The notion of practice and giving space to learn how to communicate better is so important and then helping them. I can imagine you would agree with this to reflect on that communication so you can learn from it and do it differently or better is also a valuable skill to add there.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Absolutely.
Matt Abrahams: So I’m going to ask you to get a little meta here, Julie, if that’s OK. I have seen you speak on a number of occasions and you are a phenomenal speaker and and actually a great meeting facilitator as well. And those two don’t always go together. Can you share some of the things you think about and do to prepare yourself and your content before you present or facilitate?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah, it feels a little personal, but I’m not criticizing or critiquing, I’m just acknowledging that I am going to tell you that the honest, true, honest to God truth here, please. I am spiritual, but not religious. And as a way to kind of get my mindfulness game going, when I’m backstage, about to give a big talk, I offer what some might call a prayer. I am trying to summon my gratitude for where I am and for what’s about to happen and for something that’s, you know, whatever’s going on in my life. I then ask, you know, please let me have access to my to my intellect, to my sense of humor, to my intuition. Let me connect. Let me help everybody here somehow feel seen in the message I’m trying to deliver. I’m centering myself. I’m trying to create space between wherever I just was, you know, hurrying to get there. If I’m late for pandemic, you know, the traffic was bad or, you know, I left too late or or I’m a little stressed. I just try to put a buffer between everything that came up to that, you know, that happened before that moment. And the moment that I’m entering, I’m trying to create a new container of which the conversation, whether it’s a speech to an audience or a conversation among humans where I am just one of you know, I’m I’m a fraction of the of the whole I’m trying to be intentional about the the what I need to do to create a safe and welcoming and interesting and engaging conversational experience.
Matt Abrahams: Wow. Thank you first for sharing that. And second, so many things going on in that ritual that you go through that are so helpful, the ability to be present in getting yourself in the present moment, focusing through what you called prayer, others called mantra, just focusing on the strengths that you bring to the situation. Many of us feel so intimidated and think about all the deficiencies we have before we communicate in front of others. And to focus on our strengths can only help and to really think about the experience. I love that idea of the container that’s being created and thinking about that experience can only help. So, so many lessons to learn in in what you just shared in and so many lessons to learn in watching you speak and facilitate. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me on this podcast. Are you up for that?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I’m up for it, Matt.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would that be?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Stop using slides?
Matt Abrahams: That might be the best answer to that question, given that I’m asking for a slide title. Excellent. Tell me more. Tell me, what is it about slides that bothers you?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah, well, I think some people do manage to use slides quite artfully as a way to enhance whatever it is they’re doing with their body language and the actual language. But to too many of us, don’t matter how many degrees you have or what role you play of importance in the world, really rely on the slide to tell the story, to tell the experience and glazing over, they read your slide instead of reading you. Yes. Look, my work is about connecting with humans, human to human. I actually am interested in the energy that we can create that exists in our bodies, that we can we can sort of strengthen and raise and share and receive from others. And so my work, when I’m this is what makes the pandemic so hard for a speaker like me. I’m trying to create energy through his own experience and a webcam that I’m really interested in. Like what can you feel radiating from the message that I am delivering and the slide? I think if I was to use slides and you can probably tell from my answer that I don’t, I would just use imagery, some kind of image to enhance rather than words. I think it’s too confusing.
Matt Abrahams: Allow me to go to question number two. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Oprah Winfrey and has had a resurgence, not to say that Oprah wasn’t ever always on our minds, but she did this amazing interview recently with Harry and Meghan. Yeah. And so billions of people got to see her again. But I began watching Oprah. I think her afternoon Chicago based talk show was on when I was either in my late high school years, certainly my college years. She conveyed such a mad respect for humans, a deep curiosity about the why behind people’s actions and language, and ultimately could be having a really tough conversation with somebody because the topic was tough or because what they did was difficult, bad, wrong, etc. She managed to to elucidate difficult subjects without judgment, and I thought it was the most profound intersection of curiosity, respect and truth. I mean, Oprah was always going to tell her own truth, but you would feel even if she was disagreeing with you, you would feel kind of held in her arms as she did it. And I just thought that was magnificent.
Matt Abrahams: I like the way you dissected that: curiosity, respect, and truth. And certainly she is an expert at all of that. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Maya Angelou, I believe, said they’re not going to remember what you said. They’re going to remember how they felt when you said it. For ten years, I had the distinct, humbling joy of being the dean of freshmen on the Stanford campus. And I gave a big speech, many big speeches, in a year. But orientation is what I’m thinking of. And in the noise of orientation, 200 events across six or seven days, I knew that whatever I said was not going to be memorable. You know, they were drinking from a firehose, right? Just trying not to get wet, just trying not to drown. And yet we wanted some of that water to land because it would be nourishing. And so I aimed to convey that feeling. Right. You will probably not remember the words, but hopefully you are having an experience of being respected and and helped and aided and cared about and rooted for. So I think that’s the advice. Yes. You’re going to use words, but what is it ultimately that you hope the recipient, the listener, the reader is going to take away my new book, Your Turn? The narrative voice of that took me three years to kind of find and hone, and it ultimately is trying to be me is me trying to be this compassionate, frank, older person saying, I know you’re terrified. I get that it’s valid. And the thing is, you got to you got to step into the adult place. And I’m here rooting for you and I’m going to be alongside you on these pages. And you’re going to be OK. Yes, yes, yes. Yes, you will. And to try to do that on the page, I mean, readers will have to let me know, did I succeed or not? And maybe in some chapters I did. In others I didn’t. But that’s it’s trying to imagine how the other person is going to receive any of the stuff you have to offer. And instead of focusing too much on who am I and how am I, what do I think about it from their perspective, it’ll take some of the pressure off you, I think, and it allows you to create empathy for your reader, your listener, your audience. And ultimately, that’s going to lead to a great presentation, a great communication.
Matt Abrahams: The notion of focusing on your audience and what they need is a recurrent theme that we hear across these podcast episodes. What you’ve added to it around this notion of really thinking about the experience and the feeling is very, very important as well. Thank you for that. Thank you for all of your time and your insights, your ideas about support, compassion, both for ourselves and for the young adults we’re talking to is critical. And these lessons extend well beyond transitioning into adulthood. I encourage everyone to take time to read Julie’s books and to watch her talks. Thank you so much, Julie.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Matt, thanks for having me. And to all the listeners, thanks for spending time with me today. I appreciate it.
Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to gsb.stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.
(As published on the Stanford GSB website.)
April 27, 2021