The transformational power of being heard

One afternoon, my husband, Alex, and I were driving to pick up my 5 year old son from his grandmother’s house. Earlier, we’d been practising using Non-Violent Communication (a process of compassionate communication developed by psychologist, Marshall Rosenberg) to have a challenging conversation (about parenting!). As we drove, I was sharing with Alex how being truly heard and understood helped me to feel really connected with him, and how this is such an enjoyable and deeply satisfying feeling for me. I also told him how sometimes, when I feel like I’m really fighting to be heard, I feel really unsettled, I get a tense sensation in my chest and feel really disconnected from him.

When we arrived, my son greeted us at the door with a group hug, but he was quite agitated and not really wanting to leave. These transitions are often quite challenging for him and we take them slowly, but I needed this to be quicker than usual as I had something important to get home for. My son initiated some physical play with Alex, which my husband suggested they take outside. My son took big run ups, and was lifted into the air by Alex, flown around, and jumped around like he was on the moon. They repeated this over and over, laughing and reconnecting, while I took the opportunity to catch up with my mum.

When it was time to leave, my son still didn’t seem ready to go and was playing around in the car. He was aware that I needed to get home quickly as we’d discussed this earlier in the day, so I took this opportunity to remind him, “I guess you’re not quite ready to go, and I really need to get home soon. Would you be willing to hop into your car seat?”. I waited a short time before he agreed and got into his car seat. His parting words to my mother from the car were, “Bye bye annoying poo poo!”, which I translated for her as, “Thank you for playing with me all day Grandma, I love you!”. Fortunately, she took this in good humour.

As we pulled away, my son started whinging (for want of a better word) and generally seemed quite discontent. “I don’t want to go home, I want to go to the shops … Nooo! I don’t want to do the shopping … I don’t want to play with Grandma … I don’t want to play with Grandpa, or Daddy or William, or you! … I want to play with Alex!!!”. At one point, it started to get seemingly random and kind of ridiculous, “I don’t want to go on a bus … I don’t want to go on a bus EVER AGAIN!”. It seemed like his complaints were being driven by some uncomfortable feelings just under the surface, and perhaps a lingering sense of disconnection.

Sometimes, I might feel annoyed or irritated by this, and I might get quiet, just wishing it would stop. But, perhaps as my cup was feeling quite full, I could see clearly that my son’s whinging was being driven by his discomfort, and I felt able to meet him with presence, patience and warmth. I offered empathy, matching the intensity of his expression, “You really don’t want to go home, you want to go to the shops, I see”, “Oh, you really don’t want to play with Grandma at the moment … you really want to play with Alex right now!”, “You never want to go on a bus again! I hear you!”. Alex offered some options that might meet some of my son’s needs, “We could drop Mummy home, and then I could take you to the shops. Or we could go to the park. Or we could stay at home and I could play with you”.

After about a 15 minute drive, we pulled up in our car park, and my son hopped out of the car happily (he had decided to stay at home and play with Alex). I was surprised at how dramatic the change was, the transformation from agitated to calm, from irritable to happy, from uncooperative to easy, all seemingly just from our listening, empathy and giving choices. The parallel with the conversation my husband and I had been having on the way to pick my son up was clear to me. Feeling heard, understood and cared about can really help to restore a sense of calm and connection for people of all ages!

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