Is it OK with you if….?
Eighteen months ago, I began attending a weekly Tai Chi class. Every 2-3 weeks, we learned a new move, gradually building up a sequence of about 15 moves (only another 50 to go!). In each class, we practised by following our instructor’s demonstration and verbal commentary.
‘Practice at home’ he urged.
But by the time I got home, I had forgotten what we’d learned. No practice for me.
The crunch came at the end of the year. ‘Off you go’ he said. ‘Do it without me’
We floundered. I couldn’t get beyond the first move. My class mates were no better.
So I had a choice. Either I could have said to myself ‘too difficult’ and given up. Or I could begin asking for what would help me learn.
I chose to ask. The instructor was accommodating. I began to make progress.
I could have left things there. I’d said my piece. I’d got what I wanted and it seemed to me that others were benefitting too.
But that was not enough. It was important for me to find out whether my strategy for learning was working for them too.
So in asking for repetition after repetition of the moves in subsequent weeks, I was careful to check that it was be helpful for the whole group, making it clear that I wanted them to speak out if they wanted something different.
The group was small, and its members were sufficiently confident to give me their answers.
But not everyone will be able to speak for themselves.
So what happens to those who don’t have the confidence to ask – nor even know what to ask for?
Such was the case of a young woman who wanted to talk to a doctor about an emotional problem and asked her grandmother (a very dear friend of mine) to accompany her. What transpired was a process of check after check, which moved me deeply. My friend has given me permission to share her story.
‘Of course I was willing to go with my granddaughter. But I know that when she’s under stress, she tends to go silent, and this concerned me. Would she get to the doctor’s consulting room and then say nothing?
I needed a plan, so I met her ahead of the appointment time to talk things through. But she was retreating into silence already, so this is how the ‘conversation’ developed:
Me: ‘Can you tell me what you want to talk to the doctor about?’
Me: ‘Is it about how easily you get angry?
Me: ‘Will you be able to talk about it?
Me: (Ah, this is what I was afraid would happen. So what do I do?) ‘Would you want me to do it for you?’
Me: ‘OK. I can do that – but first I need to know more about what you want me to say.’
Me: (Drawing on what I know already about my granddaughter) Let me see if I can guess. Is it true to say…?’
Me: ‘And would you want me to mention that…?
Me: ‘OK, when we get to meet the doctor, I will say those things to her. If I get anything wrong, I’d like you to tap me on the knee to let me know. I’ll make sure I sit close enough to you for you to be able to do that.
And after each bit that I say, I’ll look at you and ask “Is that what you want me to say?”
Is that OK?’
Once we got into the consulting room, I explained to the doctor what my granddaughter and I had agreed, and that I was positioning myself so as to be able to see them both as I was talking.
Each time the doctor asked a question, I checked out my answer with my granddaughter to the point where I got her silent nod of agreement, and this gave the doctor the information she needed.’
What I liked about the story
Every step of the way, my friend checked that she was representing her granddaughter accurately. She took nothing for granted and made no assumptions. There was no hint of impatience or exasperation nor any attempt to persuade her granddaughter to speak for herself.
I heard in the story a deeply moving example of care and sensitivity – and a powerful illustration of how to build trust.
(It also shows just how useful closed questions can be! Something to ponder.)
Over the next few days, look for chances to check whether:
• your getting what you’ve asked for has any downsides for others – and if so, how you can resolve things
• the help you might want to offer is welcomed by the person to whom you want to give it.
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