07 November 2008

Acknowledge Feelings

Acknowledging the feelings of another person is a powerful technique we learned from Faber-Mazlish.

One day Sapphire, our delightful daughter, about a year old at the time, was climbing over Bingo the Dog (a noisy plastic toy), fell flat on her face, and started screaming. I picked her up to comfort her, but she struggled and screamed even more. I thought, hopeless father, why did I ever have children, I'm not cut out for this, etc ... and all of a sudden realised she wasn't crying out of pain, she wanted to get back to her toy and I was preventing her! Her tears dryed up pretty fast once I put her back on the floor. But my understanding of crying was forever changed. It wasn't simply "crying => pain" anymore, crying is now an ambiguous message calling for emotionally-sensitive context-dependent interpretation. This wasn't going to be easy for my INTP personality.

Fast forward 18 months. Sometimes she trips over a toy and bashes her face on the floor - actually hurting herself. As usual, my (hopelessly wrong) intuition would suggest I say it's nothing, don't worry about it, you're not really hurt, it'll get better, stop whining, hey, get over it, it's only a bruise, it's not the end of the world, for god's sake! Here's the updated alternative:

Conan(picks Sapphire up, cradles her in arms, adopts a concerned, caring-parent expression)
Sapphire(screaming in agony)
ConanSapphire, are you hurt?
Sapphire(screams some more)
ConanIs it the end of the world?
Sapphire(screams continue, but she appears to be nodding in agreement)
ConanDid you bash your face on the floor?
Sapphire(screaming) Yes!!
ConanThat must hurt a lot!
Sapphire(screaming less) Yes!!
ConanDid you crack your skull open?
Sapphire(a little calmer) Yes!!
ConanIs your nose all squashed?
Sapphire(crying, still) Yes!!
Sapphire(sobs gently)
Conan(points to the floor where she fell) Is this where you hit the floor?
Sapphire(sobbing gently) Yes
ConanOh dear, it must have hurt you a lot.
Sapphire(moaning) Yes. Urting.
Conan(pointing to the totally wrong place, her shoulder for example) Does it hurt here?
Sapphire(points to her head) No, here. Ed ache.
ConanOh, your head hurts?
SapphireYes, ed ache. My ed ache.
ConanSapphire, tell me, what do the wheels on the bus do?
Sapphire(sniff) Go wound and wound.
ConanAnd the horn on the bus?
SapphireGo beep-beep-beep.
ConanIndeed ... do you want to play some more?
SapphireYes (Gets down. Surveys the situation. Wipes her nose in her sleeve. Resumes activity. All is well)

NLP teaches us that 90% of our communication is non-verbal, which is why you can get away with "did you crack your skull open?". Empathise, let your tone of voice and facial expression reflect how you feel, and the words don't really matter so much. Once you establish empathy, you can change the tone of the conversation, and her mood will follow. The wheels on the bus, or whatever her favourite daytime song is, makes a great distraction, and then she's ready to get back to clambering over Bingo.

It doesn't seem to work so well among adults, at least not if you're unsubtle or the victim knows what you're up to. Sincerity is really the key here.

 (late one evening)
Conan(despairingly) This PayPal developer API is really complicated, I don't know how I'll ever make money :(
Sabrina(tongue firmly in cheek) Oh, Conan, you must be really frustrated, it sounds so difficult ...
ConanDon't try your Faber-Mazlish stuff on me, dammit!
 (all burst out laughing)

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