Review: Speak Up and Get Along!

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I wish I had read a book like this when I was in school. Frankly, if I had gotten some of the advice in Scott Cooper’s _Speak Up and Get Along_ prior to joining the adult world, I might not even know where to find the self-help aisle in Border’s, much less own anything written by Dr. Phil. Knowing how to talk is not the same thing as knowing how to communicate, and if effective communication is the key to other skills, such as problem solving and conflict resolution, then this book could be an adolescent’s master key to the whole works.

Scott Cooper is an anti-bullying advocate whose background includes teaching and coaching. He is also an avid birdwatcher, so he uses bird analogies to lead young readers through several areas of communication, specifically in a school-day setting. For instance, the bluejay has no trouble speaking up for itself, the hummingbird is brave enough to defend what it cares about (but smart enough to know when to exit, stage right), and the dove is the expert at ending conflicts fairly. There’s also advice for getting along with oneself—led by the owl, because of its ability to see through darkness and obscurity. Not all the wisdom in this deceptively little book is about problem solving, either. One chapter shows that making (and keeping) friends is a skill that can be learned through openness and inquisitiveness, with the highly social blackbird to show the way.

The communication tools in _Speak Up and Get Along_ make it a great resource. The book gives readers practical suggestions for overcoming discomfort and difficulty in fundamental communication situations, such as how to ask for information or for help without feeling embarrassed, how to say no, or how to handle anger and bullying (one’s own or another’s). It also covers really tough spots like recognizing faulty thinking, accepting responsibility without becoming defensive, dealing with negative self-image, and overcoming self-defeating behaviors such as procrastination.

A large part of successful communication is not in the talking; it’s in the listening. Cooper discusses listening skills throughout, but specifically in the chapters on making friends and resolving conflicts. Something else that he touches on is listening for what’s _not_ being said. He discusses this briefly in the chapter on bullying, but readers could benefit from more depth on that subject.

If there’s a fault with _Speak Up and Get Along_, it’s that the example scenarios assume ideal situations in which readers are mature enough to know and discuss their own feelings, and that their peers are mature enough to respond in a similarly articulate manner. My recollection of my own adolescence is that I rarely had that kind of clarity or leadership ability, and anyone who has kids or works with them knows that there are only a handful of thirteen-year-olds who do. Some readers will find the examples discouragingly simplistic, particularly if they are facing tough situations at school, such as bullying or academic difficulties.

To avoid being preachy, this is a necessarily short book, so for these issues of depth and detail it’s assumed that kids will use it with some level of adult guidance. Either at home or in the classroom, the book can help initiate discussion and help readers of any age learn the tools of successful communication and problem solving. Cooper includes information for parents and teachers at the back of the book.

In spite of the idealized examples and the somewhat stilted adultspeak (no kid is going to call a Game Boy a “hand-held game”), _Speak Up and Get Along_ is a valuable tool. Effective communication isn’t just about effective self-expression; it’s also about understanding and working with the communication styles of others. The book’s strength is in showing young readers that communication skills don’t just happen, but instead are the result of a learning process that requires practice and work—a process that’s it’s never to early, nor too late, to begin.

_Anne Lies is a freelance writer who lives and works in Minneapolis._

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