Sunday, January 15, 2012

Please, No 'Please'

OK, don't laugh, but I'm starting to believe that sometimes I'm just to subtle.

Pause for laughter.

Granted, there are times when I'm... hmm... "blatant" seems like such an understatement. What's more than blatant? Well, anyway, most of the time I am not subtle. For example, to highlight the longterm effects of someone's sense of justified bias, I jump right to a clear illustration such as the German holocaust from the late 1930's to 1945. To explain the effects of educational methods that employ reward-motivated, prompted-responses (even without the punishment side of the coin), I use what I believe to be a great analogy, dog training.

I don't shy away from words like "stupid" and phrases like "most stupid" (or is it "stupidest"). I don't hesitate to say, "I have no idea what you meant." I'm the first one to let someone know that she smells as though she hasn't bathed in weeks or that he might want to take someone else with him next time he shops for clothes.

I know guys who are "honest" as a kind of schtick, and I know how to say things that get attention. I've had friends who spent years mulling what they'd tell someone "one of these days", and I know what it's like to want to tell someone off, to build your case, to hone those zingers. I know people who have to "speak their minds", but I don't feel compelled to say what I'm thinking. I just say what I'm thinking in as matter-of-fact and clear a way as I can.

Now, the problem with being as clear as you can, by using analogies that amount to what we used to call "big animal pictures", is that people often mistake your intent. They take offense and don't hear what you said.

Therein lies the rub. If you make things too clear, then people won't hear what you're saying. If you make them to subtle, then they won't hear what you're saying. The goal isn't to incite or provoke or challenge someone's sense of themselves with delivery; the goal is to clearly communicate a concept and let the concept incite, provoke or challenge as it may.

Perhaps that distinction is too subtle. Hmm...

Speaking His Mind
Iris returns from a playroom session with Quinn. She's been helping him to better communicate his thoughts and desires. The stages are easy.

Stage 1: Quinn starts by communicating his desires with agitation or expressions of discomfort. Iris sees that he wants something and might even have a good idea of what it is, but she doesn't play twenty questions; instead, she asks him about why he's pacing around the room or what he might be mumbling or why he's crying.

Step 2: Quinn realizes that simply expressing unhappiness isn't working so he points in the general direction of the refrigerator. Iris follows his gesture to the refrigerator. However she doesn't take the hint and suggest, "Oh, you must be hungry." Instead, she says, "Are you pointing at the refrigerator or maybe you're pointing at..."

She walks to the refrigerator and caresses the door with the palm of her hand saying, "This is a really nice refrigerator, isn't it? I like how shiny it is."

Stage 3: Quinn thinks, "What's with this chick? Can't she see that I want some pizza".

He mumbles something that sounds vaguely like "pizza" and Iris, as clueless as ever, asks if he said something. She mentions that it's hard to understand him when he covers his mouth with his hands or he mumbles.

Stage 4: Quinn starts to cave and clearly says "pizza" thinking that Iris will finally get it.

Iris says, "Pizza, did you say pizza? Did you have pizza for dinner last night? Did Susan make you pizza? What about pizza?"

Stage 5: Quinn wonders if Iris will ever understand anything. He decides that he must go the extra mile in order to help her saying, "I want pizza."

Iris responds, "Oh, you used your words. You want some pizza! Why don't we eat some pizza?"

Iris' goal is to help Quinn to better communicate what he wants and to do so in a way will serve him generally, i.e., she wants him to communicate spontaneously, not from a memorized list of phrases. She makes the entire interaction a game between them. She's the dumb dutch chick who doesn't understand a thing unless you're really clear and specific. She doesn't prompt Quinn with the promise of artificial rewards, but instead integrates what she's doing into his day-to-day activities and naturally occurring wants.

As Quinn becomes clearer by spontaneously putting together new words and phrases in new ways, he builds new neural pathways through his brain.

Please, No 'Please'
The process that Iris implements is simple and straight-forward. However it's clear that not everyone helping Quinn understands it. A few days ago Iris shared with me that Quinn had started to insert the word "please" into his attempts to satisfy his wants. He'd done it after Iris failed to interpret his grumpiness. He'd done it when she completely missed his gesture to the refrigerator. He'd done it after she is her clueless responses to a single word.

I say, "Oh, oh, someone's trying to teach Quinn to use the word 'please.'"

Iris says, "Yup."

Teaching someone to say 'please' and 'thank you' seems harmless. It even seems like a good thing. We could all do with a good dose of manners. However, in Quinn's case, 'please' is minimally cart-before-horse and likely counterproductive.

First, simply getting Quinn to say 'please' isn't helping him to develop new neural pathways or to better communicate his desires. In fact, doing so can lead to just the opposite. If everyone around Quinn were to make being polite more important than being clear, Quinn would lock rigidly into words like 'please' and 'thank you'. With a two word vocabulary that more than adequately communicates his desires, Quinn would have little incentive to develop other communications skills.

Second, Quinn's use of the word 'please' at times when he hasn't yet said anything else, makes it clear that someone is playing twenty-questions with him. Rather than helping Quinn to spontaneously string words together to say what he wants thereby expanding his vocabulary and improving his communications skill, they're helping him reduce his vocabulary to four phrases: yes, no, please and thank you.

It seems like such a good thing to do, helping someone to say 'please' and 'thank you'. Not to be too subtle, but it's kind of the worst thing someone could be doing if his goal is to help Quinn better communicate and to become independent.

BTW 1: Although we can all learn a lot from Quinn, the above is not about Quinn.

BTW 2: Translating the five stages I listed into a step-by-step guide would be a mistake. Both the adult and child must learn to be more spontaneous. It would be easy to make "I want pizza" another form of "please".

BTW 3: There are times when twenty-questions is a perfectly good tact. Sometimes the goal changes (e.g., from communication to sensory system maintenance). Sometimes Quinn needs more help.

BTW 4: Prompts are fine as long as they're open-ended. "Use your words" is really different than "Say, 'I want pizza.'"

Happy Sunday,

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