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Them's Fightin' Words! Using Verbal Judo to Guide Your Child in Practice

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

As I shared a few weeks back on Instagram, I have been reading George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. Being committed to lifelong learning here at Chili Dog Strings, sometimes we like to get info outside of the Suzuki-approved resources-- and after Neil introduced it to me quite a few years ago, it finally seemed like the right time to dive in.

This book is so different from other books recommended in the music teaching world. George Thompson is an ex-cop who specializes in de-escalating potentially violent encounters. I figured that, as someone who is interested in better communication skills (especially when little ones aren't following instructions), I could learn a thing or two from his set of experiences. Dr. Thompson is so practical, and I loved reading his work.

Verbal Judo is based on redirecting resistance, instead of attacking it. By using empathetic persuasion and understanding language, the other side is more likely to be agreeable, or exhibit what Thompson calls “voluntary compliance.”

The Five Universal Truths-- It's All About Respect

In the last chapter of the book, Thompson shares his Five Universal Truths, which remind us all of the common ground we all share. They are:

  1. All people want to be treated with dignity and respect

  2. All people want to be asked rather than told to do something

  3. All people want to be informed as to why they are being asked or ordered to do something

  4. All people want to be given options rather than threats

  5. All people want a second chance when they make a mistake

This book professes its applicability across many fields, situations, and participants-- and what I love so much is how applicable these principles are to children, as well. Dr. Suzuki talks about the effectiveness of treating children with respect, and I think Thompson offers a stellar reminder through his Five Universal Truths.

Have you ever heard yourself say any of these phrases to your child?

“Come here!” “You wouldn’t understand.” “Because those are the rules.” “It’s none of your business.” “What do you want me to do about it?” “Calm down!” “What’s your problem?” “You never…” or “You always…” “I’m not going to say this again.” “I’m doing this for your own good.” “Why don’t you be reasonable?”

Have you ever heard yourself say any of these phrases to your child? They come from Thompson's Chapter 6, titled, "Eleven Things Never to Say to Anyone (And How to Respond If Some Idiot Says Them to You)." I may not have children, but… I have definitely said some of these to my dog, Chili. More ridiculous, perhaps, but just as necessary to reflect upon. My point being, I think a lot of us say these things without realizing that we say them. By being aware of this and using Verbal Judo, the projected outcome is less conflict and struggle and better communication in and out of practice sessions.

In the context of working with kids, whether giving them a challenge or telling them it's time to practice, some of the above phrases are more applicable than others. Here is my take on 3 of them.

1. “COME HERE!”-- Some variations may include: “Get over here!” or “I said come here!”

Insights here suggest that when “Come here!” is said by an authority figure in an intimidating way, rather than convincing the individual to do so, the words actually are interpreted as the opposite-- “Go away” or “Escape!” Using “Come here!” suggests the threat of “You haven’t obeyed me, so now I will command you to obey me.” Referencing Thompson’s Universal Truths, I don’t think the implied tone with this phrase indicates respect for the individual, nor does it give them any options or information about why they are being called over. All people want to be asked rather than told, too--a law that this phrase breaks.

Thompson also points out that it is best to control the location for encounters where you’re asking for closer proximity. In a lesson situation, it’s less about physical confrontation and more about the necessity of having the child close so he can be physically manipulated on his instrument, if need be. I love the advantage that the foot chart lends in this scenario-- Make it less about You vs. Me by saying “Come here!” and more about what your child is capable of with “Can your feet find rest position?” or “Which color feet do your feet need to match to unlock the bow that will start our lesson?” We just shifted from a static Authoritarian tone to a tone of exploration and discovery!


In Thompson’s words, “That phrase would make just about anybody want to throw up.” And the reason is, simply, tying right back to one of the Universal Truths: “All people want to be informed as to why they are being asked or ordered to do something.” Children are no different. Give them the respect and dignity (that all people want) and give a genuine response when they ask the sometimes-dreaded “Why?”

Dogs aren't supposed to wear hats!

Because those are the rules, Chili!

Thompson says it best:

“If you fall back on ‘Because those are the rules,’ … [it] will appear you are more concerned with your own authority than with the other person’s welfare. If all you can do is repeat [that phrase,] your listener knows you’re weak and can’t support your order with logic. When you’re desperate you’ll find yourself saying, “I don’t have to explain; I’m the boss [mother, father, authority, one giving the orders].’ But if you can put the rules or policies in context and explain how they contribute to everyone’s well-being, you not only help people understand, you help them save face. And you’re also much more likely to gain voluntary compliance.”

As much as I’d like to think that I’m free of this one, I’m pretty sure I caught myself saying something like this in group class just yesterday… The context was slightly different, but upon reflection, I wish I had taken more time and care when responding to the challenging child in question. All we can commit to sincere reflection and to do better next time, right?


We’re all thinking it: This one. It’s almost always a lie! This phrase is almost always followed by the phrase we just declared we wouldn’t say again! It also indicates a lack of clarity in expectations, or that we have compromised somewhere on the progression of actions and consequences. Usually I hear this phrase preluding yet another warning, when the child’s action has already taken place. What is really warranted is the consequence-- be it sitting in time-out or losing certain privileges-- but somehow we are caught only threatening the consequence. If what we are trying to convey is the serious gravity of your words, Dr. Thompson suggests we try, “It’s important that you understand this, so let me say it again. And please listen carefully.” I am going to try that the next time I find that my request doesn’t seem to sink in with a child, and see if it makes any improvement in classroom management.

I hope we can agree that using this type of language isn’t just for self-esteem or to protect the child’s feelings. It’s about using our words in a way that gets the results we want. If you haven't used this kind of language before, try it out and observe if it helps you and your child accomplish goals assigned from lessons. Sometimes a little bit of empathy can go a long way when setting expectations and helping your child stay on task. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the results when you commit to creating a state of voluntary compliance at practice time. Maybe it’ll expand beyond it, too!


Rachel Samson is passionate about applying the legacy of Shinichi Suzuki in her teaching, and strives to deliver to parents the necessary tools to help their children succeed. Rachel and her husband Neil Fong Gilfillan operate Chili Dog Strings in Frisco TX.

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