Hello…can you hear me? Are you listening? I mean really listening?
How often do we really listen to each other? I don’t mean just hearing someone speak and then waiting for (or sometimes not waiting) for the earliest opportunity to jump in with our own thoughts or feelings or ‘important’ information. Politicians are renowned for it, but so are we all.
It reminds me of an e-card I once read, 'So tell me, what is it about the beginning of your conversation that is so much more important than the middle of mine?’
We all do it and I’m not immune either. We can’t wait to share our news or stories with friends and family, it’s human nature to a degree. But, you might ask, what does this have to do with SEN?
Well, for me, 'really listening' is one of the most important skills any practitioner involved with SEN needs to develop and wanting to do it better myself was one of the reasons why I decided to study psychotherapy.
Another, very related reason, was the lack of empathy available when my youngest son was first diagnosed with autism. He was okay, it was me who fell apart, emotionally.
Sure, there was lots of advice and leaflets to read, but there was no one available to listen to me, for me to talk to, to rant at, to cry with. Of course I had my husband, but our emotional processes are very different and rather than bringing us together, we argued over how best to parent our son, who did the most caring, whose turn it was to get up in the night, who’d had the least sleep… the list is endless of how we tried to outdo each other.
It wasn’t something we did consciously, I certainly wasn't aware of the pain I was inflicting on the person whom I had married, for better or worse, and he probably wasn't either. The one thing we didn't do was take turns really listening to each other.
I spent my time intellectualising my son’s condition while my husband went into denial. He didn't discuss or listen to me (who by now had all the answers, of course) or to anything I had to say. Tensions were running very high; it was a very difficult time.
These dynamics, I've learned, happen in most relationships. With our children, with professionals we meet, with practitioners and if we are feeling emotionally vulnerable, the cost to the relationship can be high.
I can remember going along to many a parents' evening to talk to the teacher about my child's progress and not feeling I could get through to them. Of course time is limited, but I walked away time after time feeling angry and frustrated as the teachers' eyes seemed to glaze over when I tried to explain that my son had SEN and wasn't just ‘a naughty boy’. It was not good for ongoing relationships with the school as a whole.
So how do we get people - and as this is SEN, professionals and practitioners too - to listen to us?
Tips to help you be listened to
Know your aims: Before going into a meeting, know what you want your outcomes to be. Write them down and either don’t leave until all your questions are answered, or get an email or phone contact to discuss the remaining questions to be answered at a point in the near future (in my opinion email is better as you have a communication trail and can more easily keep a record of any contact.
Be knowledgeable: Read up as much as possible about your child's condition - Knowledge really can mean power. It's also worth checking the the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) for current guidelines on treating conditions like autism.
Don't let yourself be fobbed off: Always remember that every question you ask is a valid one, irrespective of any perceived response you may get. If you feel that you have been side-stepped for an answer or your question disregarded, then be confident (or fake it) and go back to it. Be gentle but firm. Aggression is not helpful.
Celebrate the small stuff! Be positive! Celebrate the success of something - anything. It has a much more positive impact than dwelling on a negative situation. However bleak things may feel, try to find something from that day to celebrate, either alone or with someone else.
Recognise and acknowledge your own feelings: Know your emotions before walking in to any meeting. Are you feeling angry, upset, frustrated, humiliated, nervous, anxious, excited, worried, indifferent, excited? It's good to know where you are emotionally as it can help you deal with anything unexpected that may come your way. Give yourself five minutes to take stock and ask yourself where you are at. Take a few deep breaths, go for a short walk if possible.
Finally, never make any assumptions. Always clarify any points you are unsure of or unclear on. It can save lots of time and emotional upset later on.
This is a small example of how you can help yourself to feel listened to and how to listen to others. And it doesn’t just work for professionals, try it with your family too, it might surprise you!
Here are a few useful resources for general positivity and well being