I have had the good fortune the past couple weeks to leave my desk a bit more and spend time with children.
What terrific playmates they can me! They are endlessly creative and their moods change faster than the weather in San Francisco. They are eager and curious and as many people know...time with them provides stellar opportunities to practice conflict resolution.
This blog, I want to talk about how one child helped me experience the value of familiar words to ease anxiety and panic in groups or individuals.
The Baby Test!
A professor, handed me his thirteen-month old and said, "I have to take his brother to school for about thirty-minutes. He'll probably scream the entire time I'm gone, but there's really nothing to do about it. He's just going through a separation phase."
"No problem," I say but am really thinking "Oh great, thirty-minutes of screaming?
I'm a scholar without children, I cannot handle a one-minute police siren or a garbage truck.
I looked at the adorable kid and thought, "we can do better than screaming."
His father walked out the door and the crying began. He stood looking at the door totally distraught. Tears screaming down his cheeks; he had his little shoes in hand, thinking he was going to be included on the outing. I felt bad for him...it's hard to be left behind without knowing why.
I picked up the screaming little chap and tried to fruitlessly to entertain him with brightly colored plastic blocks.
Then, I wondered what would make ME feel better if I were in his place?
I picked him up and began singing him a song filled with words that would be familiar to him. I used the name of his brother, mommy, daddy, milk, home, etc. The chorus of the song was all about how much they loved him and how they would be home soon.
Needless to say, he liked the song. He relaxed into my arms and started starring out the window. Who wouldn't love a custom song with familiar words and about how wonderful he is?
When he eventually tired of my limited melody, I switched to more musically sophisticated children's songs. When that stopped working, I took him on a tour of his own house, talking about all the cool things...especially the toys in his brothers room which he probably was never allowed to see up close.
Soon after, the door opened and in trotted his father and brother. The little guy was still chillin' in my arms enjoying the one-on-one time. When I put him back on the floor to be with them, he just stood there looking at me as if saying, "Does this mean it's over?"
I have been studying the role of language in conflict for a number of years now and this experience made me consider how "familiar words" can be soothing for anyone in conflict or experiencing anxiety. Words that remind one of a simpler time, loved ones, support networks, or much loved places can help deescalate panic. When people are in conflict, they are often afraid of losing something (material or immaterial - like esteem, power etc). The anxiety of this real or perceived loss can create all kinds of distress.
Throwing at them new vocabulary and terms can be a useful distraction. At the same time using the names, places and words familiar to them can bring them ease. Milton Erickson- one of the world's foremost change experts -- and renowned therapist Cloe Madanes, and master coach Tony Robbis encourage therapists and coaches to use the metaphors provided by the people in distress. For example, if someone says, "I'm at the end my rope!" Tony says, tell them to "put it down and pick up another one." Use their words to bring them to a state in which you can work with them on a solution.
Maternal Language Works Best
Through my training with Somato Respiratory Integration (a bodywork technique that helps people with anxiety and chronic pain), I learned to work with people in their maternal tongue. People resonate more, even on a cellular level, when hearing and using their maternal language.
I used this knowledge when working with some elderly Holocaust survivors who grew up in France. Even if they had forgotten most of the language, I could trigger more of their memories by throwing in French words here and there. I saw faces change with the mere sound of the French language.
But what about BIG conflict?
Ok, you say, this might work for a crying baby or an elderly individual, but what about with Syrian refugees or those struggling in Israel or Palestine?
Remember, many people are terrified of change and loss. The loss of their culture, home, way of life and loved ones. If, in your work with them, you can use their mother tongue and talk to them about things, places and people they love you can help move them out of panic and into a state where you can work on solutions.
In panic and shock, people can rarely find solutions. If you are working with any of these populations, talk to them about THEIR worlds and use their words not yours.
Help them feel at home with you...and they just might relax enough to take a nap in your lap.