By Cristina Stanger, Self-Advocacy Liaison WRFN
*This article was originally published in the Family Pulse Newsletter November 2019*
Effective communication and emotional expression can be difficult, even at the best of times. The upcoming holiday season adds extra stress and strain to relationships; it is an overwhelming time for most, making communication both more important and harder to do.
No person exists in a vacuum. We are all impacted by various elements throughout our day: a good night’s sleep, a pleasant visit with a friend, getting stuck in traffic, forgetting to take medication, a nice walk, a substitute personal support worker, a disagreement with a coworker, a favourite meal, an unexpected change in routine, etc. All of these types of things impact how we are feeling, and in turn, affect how much energy we will have to invest in communication with other people.
Communication challenges related to various exceptionalities can further complicate things. Perhaps you (or your loved one) are unable to communicate verbally. Perhaps you struggle to identify and express emotions. Perhaps your ability to read non-verbal cues is not as strong as you would like, leaving you with missing information. When I work with different individuals and families, finding more effective ways to communicate comes up often in discussion, particularly when trying to understand each other’s feelings. Here are some creative ideas you and your family may wish to explore:
Be general if you cannot be specific
- Simply saying, “Something is wrong, but I am not ready to talk about it yet” gives loved ones an idea that you are working through something challenging, but also allows time to process things. Personally, I have needed as much as three days of time before I could even articulate what had happened to upset me.
- Consider a signal system, such as a red, yellow, and green rock with a designated meaning, along with a specified location where you leave whichever rock best represents how you are feeling or how capable you feel to communicate. This gives family a general guideline about how best to interact with you at that particular time.
Be patient and gently check-in with each other, if possible
- As I have trouble picking up some non-verbal cues, sometimes I misinterpret the demeanor of a loved one, usually assuming I’ve inadvertently done something to upset them. These days, I try and check-in with that person first before jumping to a conclusion. I’ve found the question, “What are you thinking about?” to be very effective - 95% of the time my family member is caught up in thought about something completely unrelated to me.
- Accept “I don’t know” as a viable answer about how someone feels. Notice the question above isn’t “How are you feeling?” because sometimes finding the word for an emotion, or isolating the main feeling, is a real challenge for some individuals. In some cases, consulting with a professional psychological support can be helpful when processing important events or if you desire coaching on how to more effectively process your emotions.
Be creative and utilize a different medium to express yourself
- Use the words of others who have been there to help guide you. Personally I’ve found reading works by authors who share my diagnosis to be, not only validating, but effective tools to explain what my exceptionality can mean in different situations. By finding short, accessible articles and memoirs, highlighting the sections I relate to (even making notes in the margins) and then sharing these with family members willing to read them, I have been able to give them some insight, even when I cannot explain something myself.
- If you want to express your own feelings or ideas, but conversation or written word does not suit you, consider selecting/creating some other art form to communicate important ideas to the people you care about. For example, find a scene from a movie relevant to how you feel, make a collage of images, create a music playlist, etc.
Be strategic and set the stage for success
- Allow time (hours or days, not just minutes) for emotional processing before discussing something that is emotionally charged. Give advance notice to discuss something important - avoid conversations that take someone by surprise when possible. For example, “I noticed you seemed upset about what happened at dance class today. I’d like to talk about it with you sometime, would Thursday after school be an okay time?”
- A shared activity, particularly one where the participants are situated side-by-side, can be an effective environment to converse. The joint activity gives a starting point for the conversation, face-to-face interaction isn’t expected/necessary, and pauses in conversation are not as awkward. Going for a walk together, or going out for a car ride are my personal favourites.
Please bare in mind, this is not an exhaustive list. And as always, you know yourself and your family best, so these ideas are merely food for thought. I am not a perfect communicator, if anything, writing this article has reminded me about areas I would like to work on in my own life. I hope they’ve sparked something for you to consider as well.
If you or your family members would like to discuss this, or another topic, please reach out to Cristina through the Ask A Self-Advocate program (AASA) via our Online Booking Request Form. As with all WRFN programming, the AASA program is provided at no charge.