Proposal for a 9 week Classroom Based Pilot Project:


9 Great Ways to Quit Sabotaging Good Conversations


by Paul W. Schenk Psy.D



                       This 9 week pilot program is designed to teach students how to recognize and avoid common “language traps”: specific words and phrases that reliably sabotage good conversations.  Each week, a different language trap will be identified and studied using a multimedia format.  Students will learn simple, effective strategies for avoiding each language trap and improving communication skills.  The length of the program can be adjusted as needed to include fewer or additional language traps. 


            :           Most of us unintentionally acquire a variety of bad linguistic habits as we grow.  Over the last quarter-century, it has been my clinical experience that a large percentage of arguments can be traced to the unwitting use of one or more of these language traps.  Learning to identify them is relatively easy.  However, replacing a counterproductive linguistic habit with an effective one requires conscious awareness and some considerable practice.  A group setting such as a classroom affords an excellent environment for shared vigilance in a playful, relaxed manner that can foster this kind of awareness and opportunity for practice. 

Optional Textbook:         

Schenk, Paul, (2002). Great Ways to Sabotage a Good Conversation. 55 pages.


Each week, the next language trap is introduced with examples drawn from syndicated cartoon strips such as Zits®, Baby Blues® and Foxtrot®.  These can be presented via handouts, transparencies, or Power Point presentation. Students can then be asked to offer other examples of that language trap.  The teacher can invite the students to speculate aloud about why the language trap produces that particular result.  As needed, the teacher can elaborate on the linguistic and cognitive factors that create this particular line which trap.  Similarly, the students can discuss why the proposed language change is more likely to produce the desired result.  The teacher can assist and affirm as needed. 

As homework, students may be asked to keep a log in which they record examples of this language trap that occur during the week.  Optionally, as resources allow, students can watch and/or videotape popular TV sitcoms to note/record examples of the language trap.  As time allows, these can be discussed/viewed in class, noting the outcome that the language trap produced, and practicing the suggested ways to avoid the trap.  Classroom discussion is intended to provide opportunities for continued awareness and practice, as well as to provide a light-hearted way to recognize that changing linguistic habits can be hard, and that the results are worth the effort.

Additional possibilities could include the following:

                     Students can be given a writing assignment in which they create a dialogue between two people that utilizes the language trap and demonstrates the results that it often elicits.  The student can then modify the dialogue, replacing the language trap with a more effective word/phrase to demonstrate how this usually elicits a different (i.e., better) response.

                     Schools with a drama club could create (and, optionally, videotape) short vignettes that demonstrate each of the language traps and the simple linguistic change that will avoid the trap. 

                    Students in a psychology class could give greater focus to the emotional issues that each language trap triggers, as well as the body language and voice tone that typically accompany the occurrence of a language trap.                          

                    With the advent of internet-based Instant Messaging, students have an excellent means of monitoring their choice of words.  Because of the  lag time between when the words are “spoken” and actually “sent”, the medium allows the opportunity to practice visually “hearing”  language traps when they occur and correcting them before they reach the listener. Since Instant Messaging software allows the user to keep a log of any conversation, students can retrospectively review logs to look for examples of language traps and their consequences.


                       At the conclusion of the 9 weeks, the students could be asked to complete a brief questionnaire (using a 5 or 7 point rating scale) to help quantify a subjective sense of both the reduction in the number of disagreements/arguments with friends (and optionally, parents), and the degree of improvement in the overall quality of their conversations.


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Dr Paul Schenk Psy.D is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia, USA since 1979, where he maintains a diverse practice providing evaluation and therapy for families, couples, and individuals. Dr. Schenk’s special interests include the evaluation and treatment of sexual abuse in children and adults, the evaluation and treatment of ADHD  in children and adults, and the clinical uses of hypnosis for the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of problems.    He is the author of Great Ways to Sabotage a Good Conversation [available at] Email: