Tim Madigan, author of “I’m proud of you: My Friendship with Fred Rogers” said that during his first conversation with Mister Rogers, he said, “Tim, do you know what the most important thing in the world to me right now is?… talking to Tim Madigan on the phone”
This level of love and care is so simple, so powerful, and yet so rare.
Many people with disabilities have lived much of their life not ever being fully known or understood. The conversations that do take place typically revolve around their “problems” and how human service programs can “fix” them. People who have difficulty speaking, are difficult to understand, or cannot speak at all, run a high risk of living a lonely life. These difficulties can even lead to abuse and neglect. People who are vulnerable in these ways are especially in need for someone to listen, understand, and to speak up with them or for them.
It can feel risky and uncomfortable to enter a conversation with someone who communicates differently or has difficulty communicating. Recognizing that it is not “wrong” to have initial feelings of awkwardness or uncertainty can be an encouraging start, but here are several guidelines on listening and communicating.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, - James 1:19
- Words that are spoken.
- It is common that we cannot follow when people talk because we already have our own line of thought preoccupying our mind. Instead, we must quiet our minds so that we can hear and take in what is being said.
- Listen attentively. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. Try not to interrupt.
- Speak directly to the person you are listening to, rather than around them. Avoid communicating through a family member or service worker who may be present.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. Never pretend to understand when you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond to clarify and finish.
- It can be helpful to move from a crowded or loud room to a quitter space in order to follow the conversation better and to remove distractions that may get in the way.
- If you don't understand it's better to ask for them to repeat it than to pretend like you understand it's okay to ask for assistance from someone if they may be able to help.
2. Words held back
- It's not only important to ask questions to simply clarify what was said, but to ask questions that spark curiosity and insight. This lets the person know that you not only hear the words they're saying but that you want to explore more of the topic with them. This is just what makes for a good conversation!
- As long as the person being listened to feels supported and respected, don’t be afraid to challenge or disagree, that's also what makes good conversation and will enrich your relationship.
- The better a listener you are the more likely the person being listened to will feel safe with you and open up more. Not to mention they may be more open to your suggestions.
- It's also important to keep in mind that just because someone is said to not be able to talk, doesn't mean that they are unable to communicate. First of all, they may be able to speak, just slowly or in a way that is difficult to follow or understand. Secondly, verbal communication is not the only one way of communication. Other forms include:
- Emotions and moods
- Facial expressions
- Signs, signing, signals
- Reading and writing
- Use of pictures, drawing, and other visual aids
(Osborn, Massereli 2006)
3. Words unuttered but lie in the heart
- Be okay with silence and the awkward feelings it might provoke. Allowing time and space to connect, and relate emotionally, might bring out a gesture, a word, or even discernment on a given situation that you miss if you are busy filling in the space to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Patience is key.
- Also, your relationship should be mutual and open. Therefore give your partner insight into your life as well. As in any healthy relationship, it should not be one sided or condescending. This focus may help your partner feel more comfortable opening up themselves. When being vulnerable, it’s important to consider appropriate emotional boundaries, however. Don’t forget that your partner can be a source of comfort to you as well.
- Even sitting in silence can be edifying, or talking to them sensitively even when they don't respond.
Osburn, J. & Massereli, J. (2006). Some helpful points to keep in mind in the presence of people who cannot or do not talk. The SRV Journal, 1 (1), 26-29.