Author Archives: siobhanedwardsblog

“Our communication is work in progress …”

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.

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To walk invisible

Since watching Sally Wainwright’s powerful biopic about the life of the Brontes, I’ve been thinking a lot about the programme, and the title. Apparently, the title comes from a letter written by Charlotte Bronte about being the author of Jane Eyre: “What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible? One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.”

I find myself interested in the benefits of visibility – of being seen – and invisibility – not being seen – and of the value of “a quiet mind”. As a coach, I often work with people to help them think about what they want from work and, sometimes, the rest of life. I listen, I ask questions, I ‘play back’ some of what I have heard, I ask more questions, and listen some more. Through this process, I hope to help my clients hear their own story more clearly, or to hear it differently.

I also help clients to see themselves as others might see them. To think about how they communicate with other people, about the impact they seek to have, and if it might be different from the impact they are having. I notice that, for some people, being themselves and being ‘visible’ in the world is a fairly straight forward affair. They don’t give it much thought until they hit a difficulty in relationship, or in developing their career as they had hoped.

For other people, ‘being in the world’ is not so straight forward, it is problematic. For some of these people, the habit of hiding or seeking invisibility is a powerful one. They have become used to not being seen for who they are, for not saying or showing what they really think or feel. They feel that it is safer and wiser, perhaps, ‘to walk invisible’ through the world.

From my own experiences, over the years, I have learned that it is important to get to know yourself, to see yourself and to let others see you.

A “quiet mind” is of great worth, but only if it is the quiet born of a real relationship with yourself, a confidence in who you are and what matters. If it a quiet that is about avoiding real contact and shying away from being seen or known, then it is not so good.

In Jane Eyre, Jane asks Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? … I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart!”. To me, Jane Eyre’s story is so compelling because it is about someone who is “poor, obscure, plain and little”, but who finds her strength and becomes fully visible in the world.

Making time

As a coach and facilitator, I see a crucial part of my role as making time for people. Time for them to think, to ask and answer questions, to have a conversation. In coaching my client, I am creating a space in which they can reflect – a space in time, carved out from all the busy-ness of life. I make the time for their coaching, and by committing to the coaching relationship, my client makes time and space for themselves. This is ‘time out’, precious time, protected time, spacious time; time for a different kind of conversation.

It is similar when I’m facilitating a group of people using a methodology like Action Learning, or in a more open process of facilitating, for example, a team away day.

In Action Learning, my role as facilitator is to model the process of Action Learning – asking clarifying and open questions in the service of the presenter (the speaker) – while holding the space for the Action Learning set participants to listen well, and ask questions that support reflection for the presenter.  In an ideal world, an Action Learning set meeting will take place over a day, requiring participants to commit to time out of the routine and giving time to peer learning. It is important that the set meeting starts and end on time, and that the session gives time for a number of participants to present. The set meeting will take place in a room with only chairs and no table, to add to the sense of spaciousness and to keep focused on the questioning process – rather than ‘business as usual’.

In facilitating an away day, I will take time to design the day so there is a clear, but flexible agenda that meets the need of the client, but also allows for issues arising on the day to be addressed in the here and now, and given space. As I grow more experienced in facilitation, I learn to put less into the day, to allow each activity more time, and to give more space to what emerges from the day’s discussion and reflection.

Managing time is one of the great challenges of the modern world. If we are not careful, our time at work gets taken up by meetings and emails, by all the unplanned and immediate demands, rather than the planned and important. At home, we can find ourselves feeling pressed for time, busy running a household, caring for others, juggling multiple responsibilities and struggling to find time for the activities we want to do – seeing our friends, gardening, reading, keeping fit, or resting.

As we age, also, there seems to be less and less time, with a sense of time running away with us. We find ourselves wondering when we last saw our friend, last celebrated an achievement, last stood on sand looking out at the sea. We can find that another season has passed, another year, another decade.

What can help us manage our time better, to feel that we have the time we need? What can we do to make time for the important thoughts, feelings and relationships that make life feel worthwhile?

Here are a few suggestions from my experience:

  • Practicing mindfulness, even in the smallest way – making time to make a cup of tea or coffee, focusing on the process, and then savouring the taste and experience of the drink
  • Keeping a reflective learning log or journal – to write down experiences, thoughts and concerns, in work or outside of work; to note ideas for projects; to record inspirational quotations – and then reading it, from time to time
  • Action Learning – joining an Action Learning set and learning to listen and ask questions, and through this process learn while supporting peers
  • Coaching – committing to work with a coach, engaging in a supportive and challenging conversation, over time, focused on developing the self