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We know that close supervision is the knockout punch when it comes to stopping drowning. It’s a bit ironic then that the most difficult task a young lifeguard has is the conversation with a parent when they aren’t close enough to their child.

Lifeguards need our help with this… there’s lots riding on it.

It goes like this…

A lifeguard sees a 30 something year old Dad sitting at a table with his coffee, reading the paper. The lifeguard recognises the Dad from the gym… fit, strong looking dude, and his kid is in the pool nearby. The lifeguard knows the centre policy and what his employer expects of him, so he walks over and says;

     “Excuse me, would you mind moving just a bit closer to your boy? The centre’s policy is that you have to be within arm’s reach”.

Even imagining this, I’m giggling as the alpha’s chest grows an extra 4 inches, his jaw tightens and his gaze becomes steely. All he heard was;

     “Excuse me, you’re a bad Dad…so bad in fact that you’re about to let your own kid drown and, and, and… I, with my 17 years of wisdom, am telling you on how to pick up your freakin’ act”.

Dad thinks for a moment… and then decides to speak rather than pull the lifeguard’s head off.

    You got kids mate (uh-oh…loaded question)?

    Lifeguard; ‘Nup’ (… I’d be happy to just have a girlfriend).

     ‘Well how about you skip back on over to your little corner of the pool and do ya bloody job… I’m watchin’ me kid.

Lifeguard; ‘No worries’ (even though there is no change in Dad’s behaviour).

The lifeguard, rather than realise he needs to change his approach, starts avoiding these situations, and who can blame them. It’s no fun thinking that the next step is getting your head knocked off, either now or down the road, later in the week. Unlike diving in, drag some kid off the bottom and bringing him back to life on pool deck, there’s no big dose of ‘feel good’ (positive reinforcement) when you have one of these ‘parental interactions’.

If we’re going to push young lifeguards into the breech, we need to arm them better.

Getting another human to change their behaviour is an art and I encourage lifeguards to see it as just that; a game. How long will it take you to get this guy to move closer to his kid without getting push back? If you can master the art, it will help you in every avenue of your life.

There’s lots of recipes. Older lifeguards often have one and don’t even realise it. Here’s some tips to help you build your own;

  1. Don’t make a beeline for Dad or he’ll know by your body language that you’re coming for him.
  2. Move into his area at the same leisurely pace you’ve been using all afternoon.
  3. On the way over make some generalisations about this person and their interests
  4. Slowly come to a stop near the person and angle your body so you’re facing the pool but also with a slight angle toward Dad. Not square on to him; square is confrontational.
  5. Catch his eye, say ‘G’day mate’, ‘Hey bro’ (whatever’s your usual) and then not too enthusiastically, lead with an ice breaker; See the footy last night?… pause for effect.
  6. Build rapport, build trust; be his mate not the facility policeman.
  7. At the right time, gently switch the topic to his kid. If you don’t know the kids name make it part of your rapport building to find out; How’s Will going? Looks like he’s enjoying himself.
  8. Build more rapport, build more trust.
  9. At this point slowly start to move toward the kid and see if Dad start to move with you? If he doesn’t, stop and build more rapport.
  10. Try slowly moving again, this time don’t stop. Kneel and speak quietly to the kid. This might entice Dad to come closer so he can hear. Tell Will you love his Batman goggle or whatever.
  11. If Dad still doesn’t move you could use any excuse, even an out and out lie. Asking for a favour works a treat; ‘Could you do me a favour? I’m on this performance management thingy and every afternoon they review the facility footage to see if I’m engaging customers. Would you walk over to the pool with me… thanks. Drop in the ‘thanks’ before they reply or move.
  12. Sell or reinforce the message using informal language; I’m not sure if they told you at the front counter but it’s better to be (not you have to be) within arm’s reach of Will (use his name). I know it’s a bit of a hassle but believe me it’s been made a huge difference to the number of kids who’ve been getting into trouble in the water.
  13. Make out he’s one of the good parents; ‘You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we see around here’.
  14. Maintain humour; ‘my boss reckons some people should have to get a licence to have kids’.
  15. Once Dad has changed his behaviour don’t run off. Don’t make out like it was the purpose of your chat. Stay a few moments and talk about another unrelated topic; ‘good to see the warm weather hanging around hey?’
  16. Then when it suits you, gently walk away saying ‘see ya mate, see ya Will’. In your mind, punching the air; ‘…like a boss… another kid saved’.

If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.

This is just an example. With practice, you’ll develop your own recipe. Base your approach on your own personality style; it helps to keep it looking and feeling natural. Adjust it to suit the interaction and person. Share your recipe with your team. Watching older lifeguards. With more life experience and less age difference they manage to get less push back. Ask if you can shadow them on their next approach. This way people start to associate the message and the role with you too.

If you have one of those old school managers who uses the ‘hey, watch ya bloody kid or get out’… ah, this might not be the best approach for you to lead with. In the end, they must comply and if getting firmer is required, you’re going to need another pre-prepared recipe for that as well. This may include bringing in that old school boss.

It’s not about parental supervision or drowning prevention or lifeguarding. It’s about influencing people. Obi Wan Kenobi was a master at it, as was Dale Carnegie (1888- 1955). Get a book on the topic. It’ll have a positive impact on every aspect of your life.

Got a good recipe? I’d love to hear it.

Now go get ‘em.