Sunday, 14 August 2011

When words can’t do the job


Most of my current focus with Drama therapy is around working with those with dementia and related conditions. Their withdrawal or diminished communication skills as well as memory loss are a huge factor in the grief anxiety and frustration friends and relatives can feel. It is an even bigger factor for the people themselves.  But it is not just they who have trouble with words.
In the modern world we make huge judgements based on language and how those around us use it to communicate. We haven’t moved far from Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in some respects.  Fail to express yourself in a smooth, articulate way and this will not enhance your job or promotion prospects.
We do seem able to cope with a wider range of accents than in Edwardian times but style really does matter in the spoken word particularly in the professional world.
Recently I have been working with two people from very different settings. In the past we would have talked about whatever they brought and used a variety of models to try and best address their issues. But these two, both intelligent and sensitive had some barriers to their verbal communication.
The first is highly educated, doing well in a high pressure setting but with a gentle, low key style. Their speaking voice is low, their approach polite. Some perceive this as weak. They have been challenged in an entirely inappropriate way but because they did not respond with volume or rudeness, this was seen as a failure. The initial brief was to change how they spoke but on meeting them it quickly became obvious that there was no major problem. Less explaining, short sentences and no apologising for doing the job dealt with that. This was a mature, courteous professional.
Once we stopped relying only on the verbal side of behaviour  we could start to play around with their style non verbally. And play is the important approach. Acting out the fears and then  fun preparing, laid the foundations. They discovered that they had many ways to deal with situations within themselves that did not compromise their ethics.The pleasure in their voice when they described stopping a takeover of a meeting without yelling was a treat. They had enjoyed the practice, gained confidence and above all made a change that was fun with no harm to anyone. The rest of the group were stunned by the quiet but effective methods employed. And they all loved seeing a bully shut down - politely.
The second person is an immigrant of high intelligence but a limited grasp of professional English. They are fine with conversation and can make themselves clear. This is someone who speaks three other languages fluently. But his aspirations get crushed when he comes up against a language barrier. He has felt too shy and ashamed to find a way past this barrier. He became so overcome that I was struggling to get to what he wishes to say and then we moved to playing it out. He came alive. His grief at having his great coaching skills overlooked because he “Didn’t sound right” was powerful. I felt his quiet pleasure in outdoing the team he wasn’t allowed to coach was more than justified. Natural justice does rule sometimes.
We could argue that an interpreter would have dealt with this situation but I think it would have reinforced his feelings of inadequacy. As it was he took charge and showed what was happening for him and what he wanted. There is a lot of hard work ahead and no guarantee of a happy ending but he is in charge.
Talking is not always the best way when there are marked differences in language skills or style. I am realising more and more that not only do actions speak louder than words but they can be so much more direct. When you put the two together, it’s formidable.

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