My 4-year old son no longer communicates the way he used to. I have shared in previous articles that he has Cerebral Palsy which primarily affects his speech and mobility. Up until a few months ago, he communicated mainly by gesturing and sometimes with incoherent speech. While his mom and I encourage him to use words, we understand him quite well when he gestures, so I don’t mind it too much. For example, when he is hungry, I simply take him to the refrigerator or cupboard and ask him to show me what he wants to eat. It never fails.
Today, as my son develops and attains certain milestones, I notice he gestures less and less and tries more to communicate his message verbally. Although I am proud of his determination and desire to talk, this poses a major challenge for me and his mom. At least seventy-five percent of the time, I do not understand a word my son is saying. I hate to admit it, but many times I fake comprehension until I get other clues to figure out his message. Sometimes, I am able to hear clearly a word or phrase and determine what he is trying to say. Other times, I am completely clueless.
Being a counselor-in-training, I began to consider what would be the ideal approach to such a situation in our profession. In other words, what do we do if and when we no longer understand our clients? Where do we go when we have arrived at an impasse due to some barrier in communication brought about by a change, whether negative or positive, in our client? We might be speaking the same language, but we are unable to understand what the client is communicating. An example would be if we restate what we believe our client is saying or feeling and repeatedly hear the words, “No, that’s not what I’m saying.” Does such a situation indicate that the method or form of communication has changed or evolved?
I posit that is one possibility. If that is the case then what do we do? How do we move forward? The number one reaction might be for us to change our approach. When I discovered I could no longer understand my son as well as I had before, I actually tried to get him to communicate the way he used to. I feel ashamed of that now and acknowledge that it was both selfish and detrimental to his development. Thankfully, I recognized the error in this approach and discontinued. Obviously, asking my son to go back to gesturing would very likely lead to a regression in his development. This would benefit no one. It therefore became incumbent upon me to adapt to his new way of communicating. Likewise, it is counterproductive to growth in our clients if we fail to embrace this possible communication evolution in our clients. I suggest that it is better to allow another counselor to work with such a client than to allow persistent misunderstanding and misinterpretation to result in stagnation or worst, regression. These days, when I do not understand my son, I involve my wife and together we are able to decipher his message.
There are many barriers to communication. My personal experience has led me to believe that one of the primary barriers is ourselves. We each have our own internal noises and expectations that prevent us from understanding our clients. A change in the way our clients communicate could very well serve as a nudge for us to revisit how we communicate with our clients, and if necessary, make some changes and evolve.
Pete Saunders is a counselor in training at Capella University. He also writes a weekly blog and conducts a weekly video interview on manhood at razorsanddiapers.com