I came across the quote above in a recent article in The Guardian: ‘My autism hasn’t stopped me connecting with my sister’. This moving article is about how two sisters, Kerstin and Anneliese, have learned, over time, to communicate in ways that work well for both of them. Both sisters suffer from anxiety and depression, and one sister has been diagnosed with Autism as an adult, while the other has struggled with alcohol dependency.
The sisters have learned to communication using a combination of written letters incorporating drawings, pictures and stickers; WhatsApp messages, phone calls and emails.
The article made me think about how we communicate with each other, and how important it is to think of communication as a two-way process where the style and approach work well for both parties.
I have always been interested in communication, in writing and speaking; I studied English at University and considered training as a Speech and Language Therapist. These days, I work as a coach and facilitator, using words and questions to open up conversations for individuals and groups. I like words, I am curious, and through my training as an Action Learning facilitator and as a coach, I have learned to ask open questions.
In The Guardian article, the sister with the Autism diagnosis, says she finds questions such as ‘How are you?’ or even ‘What do you want to eat?’ difficult. She says, “I don’t really like questions that are open to interpretation because I feel like there are too many options.”
So, open questions may be very useful at times to unlock thinking, but they don’t work for everyone, all the time.
While thinking about all this, I recently attended an inspirational conference run by North Yorkshire County Council about their ‘No Wrong Door’ project which works with adolescents in care or on the edge of care. The project builds support services around the needs of the adolescents, including provision of on-site access to Clinical Psychologists and Speech and Language Therapists.
The Speech and Language Therapists help the young people to communicate and express themselves, while the Psychologists, known as ‘Life Coaches’ in the project, support the mental health needs of the young people.
This makes such sense to me now, now that ‘No Wrong Door’ has made this connection explicit: young people who have troubled and disrupted childhoods often experience disrupted schooling and so may have missed out on some of the ‘building blocks’ of spoken and written communication. They may well have experienced trauma that has created a barrier to self-expression, and have speech and language problems that have never been attended to. So, providing personalised support is not just about giving these young people counselling and psychological support; it’s also about helping them to express what they feel and what they need.
All communication is work in progress for all of us, but it’s good to be reminded how hard effective communication can be some people and that no one approach works for everyone.
Effective communication is about communicating ‘with’ not ‘to’, so there is a need to make sure that communication styles and approaches are used flexibly, creatively and, most of all, responsively.