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Listening for Invisible Needs

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I’ve paused from writing on my website to focus on my upcoming book on effective communication with GHF Press.

While there’s no doubt that it can still be challenging, engaging in effective communication is a simple process: you have a stance of curiosity about what somebody is going through, remain open to complex explanations, and work to honor the choice and autonomy of everybody involved. Curiosity, complexity, choice.

This doesn’t change across differences in structural power, including age or ability.

I was talking with Corin Goodwin, Executive Director of GHF, about invisible disabilities and how it can be hard to self-advocate in the workplace when faced with a variety of resistances from colleagues. The same day, I attended a children’s musical that a musician friend directed. She told me how she had included a variety of kids with special needs. The parents didn’t name what they were facing or make specific requests, leaving the staff to improvise to accommodate what were clearly long-standing challenges.

If dignity, respect, and collaboration are so basic, why is it so often challenging in the workplace and educational settings? How can I set a foundation for my book, which has implications for family life, education and mental health?

Corin encouraged me to consider what leads to resistance to paradigm shifts. One individual with a solid self-connection, using whatever method of delivery works for them to express their needs, matters more than any previous books or degrees. I want professionals to be able to let all of their training go in order to simply pay attention to the person in front of them.

Professionals often love to contribute, often preemptively, which can lead to “speculative contribution.” A very brave friend of mine sometimes says, “That isn’t contribution.” Blunt, simple, and rare. While it is apparent that a person in a wheelchair would want wheelchair access, what accommodations would you offer for a person who doesn’t recognize faces or who can’t process language when it comes from multiple sound sources at the same time? The key isn’t to become an expert in all forms of diversity, but instead to adopt a stance of cultural humility.

This isn’t about making the adults comfortable, it is about serving the kids. With full openness to whatever needs arise from a person’s self-connection, there would be no temptation to work towards compliance. There is no authority beyond the person in front of you, and therefore no other marching orders to comply with. In fact, in a system that works well, all members are having fun, even the adults. When I visit schools and therapy agencies, I remind staff “If the adults aren’t having fun, then something isn’t working.” This is not to take away focus from children, but to take seriously that everybody’s needs matter.

There are challenging aspects to many exceptionalities, including gifted overexcitabilities and dyslexia. The autism community seems to have one of the toughest times being taken seriously; it’s the only one I know of whose members actively campaign against groups that claim to support it. You may know the saying “If you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person.” The same is true of red rubber balls and silver half dimes.

Put away your books and your charts, and attend to the person in front of you. Listen to what is presented.

My friend the music director didn’t have an eye-roll when she met these kids, and she would have benefited from some shared information about best practices to serve them. Still, better than a cheat sheet, she improvised and treated them with respect. This respect includes support to take breaks when needed and encouraging risks when safe.

Respect neither coddles nor confines.

If a parent shows up to the first soccer practice with a thirty page document and two attorneys, the volunteer coach may understandably have a full-body eye-roll. I write about empathic imagination, digging deep to see what is bothering somebody.  This example is more obvious, so it is more of an empathy experiment. We could see how a parent could get desperate and frustrated in their advocacy, wanting common sense cooperation, ease, and access and joy for their child.  I expect that other adults, if they took the time to self-connect, would value those needs as well.

Self-connection and self-expression can bring forward invisible needs. See those needs with empathy, and attend to them. We want a world where people ask for what serves them, and are well served. We don’t want paperwork mandating fidget toys or breaks or scent-free environments or moderate volume equipment.

Let’s work for more inclusion with less paperwork.

I’ve written a lot, hoping to lay a groundwork of empathy before I share more about communication practices. If a parent, have you ever perceived the full-body eye-roll? How did you cope and respond? What support did you access? Did any of this land for you as meaningful or nettle you as inaccurate? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Jade July 13, 2015, 2:17 am

    Good to see you back on the blog! Working to meet an individual’s needs, in the moment, has been the least of my worries. It’s meeting group needs that exhausts me. Situations like balancing the needs of a learning cohort or the tension of needs between a student and their caregiver can easily use up all of my resources if I let it. I hope you write more about that, in the future. 🙂

    • byamtich July 13, 2015, 4:42 pm

      Thanks Jade! Yes, needs in a group can become much more complicated to navigate- leadership and patience can be regularly tested. NVC concepts such as “Conflict exists at the level of strategy, not need” come to mind but don’t allay the challenge of the balance you name. The attention required (or requested) for resolution can stimulate needs of others in the group (movement, focus, learning and engagement). It’s all about what you pay attention to and when. Levels of willingness, making, holding, and renegotiating agreements with care, it reminds me of the BayNVC Leadership Program. Should we tackle the common challenge of one person asking for a wildly disproportionate amount of attention? I’ll write more about it, for sure, and I hope you do as well.

      • Jade Rivera July 20, 2015, 3:50 am

        “It’s all about what you pay attention to and when.” I think it’s all in that sentence! Balancing group needs is a lesson in triage. 🙂 Thanks for your reply.

  • D'Anna Entrekin July 20, 2015, 8:14 am

    Cultural humility. Whoa! You just connect some big dots for me. My undergraduate degree is in intercultural studies and I’ve never seen the connection to how that time prepared me for what I do now. Even though culture is a passion and curiosity for me, I’ve been regretful that I didn’t spend that time and money preparing for what I’m doing now with gifted kids….turns out that it was part of my preparation all along. Thank you.

    And thank you for the encouragement. We’re two weeks out from school and I’m already anxious about what to say and how much to tell my five year old’s teacher. I’ve experienced that eye-roll. It was devastating at first because I’m a recovering Pleaser. Now that I’ve embraced my role as Advocate I cope better, but it’s still hard to let people see me as THAT parent with THAT kid. I find that most adults are overconfident about working with my son. It nettles. I try to explain and they brush me off. A month later I see them struggling to admit that they couldn’t “reach” my child with their strategies and yet they don’t ask me for help….which leaves me feeling super high maintainence when I start suggesting solutions and asking for accountability of the teachers. I have yet to experience a TEAM like relationship with teachers. I know I have some responsibility in setting the stage for this relationship….it’s hard to let go of the defensiveness from past interactions. Hence the build up to this year. I’m looking forward to the book.

    • byamtich July 20, 2015, 4:03 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment; I’m glad you found what I wrote encouraging. I was hoping that between Pleaser and Advocate you could have a sabbatical of ease and thriving.

      Here’s some advice for Advocacy, although I still say gather tons of peer-support and self-empathy to recharge your batteries. You are longing for teamwork. You will have to be able to aikido those eye-rolls and brush offs. Without defensiveness, but also without letting go.

      Last resort: Get three hugs then fight hard.

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