So said the 11 year old boy as he literally threw himself down the stairs in front of me. I kid you not. Although, maybe I should clarify the scene a little more. It's a residential home for boys circa 2006. I'm one of the staff on duty and I'm trying to get this young man to do his homework. And, clearly, it is not going well. It's not quite a full leap or swan dive that he makes from top to bottom, more a slow rolling, head over heels, one step at a time down the stairs effort, all the time screaming at (or quite near to) the top of his voice. "You're not listening". But, by any standards though, he had actually thrown himself down the stairs in protest. Quite dramatic I think you'd agree. He never really injured himself somehow, despite the regularity of this happening. I won't say it was a daily occurrence but I would have witnessed this on at least 7 or 8 occasions myself. And, as I was just one of maybe a dozen workers in the children's home at the time, I can only assume it happened a few more times without me witnessing. As a say, an impressive protest.
The thing that stuck with more than the falling down the stairs however was this absolute insistantance by him that we (i.e. myself and the other staff) were not listening. And no amount of protests to the contrary could allay him. Now, I'm going to take a wild guess and say that, most likely, someone has said these words to you too at some point. Maybe they didn't throw themselves down the stairs at the time, but it's likely they were in some way animated at the time and, further likely still, that you thought "what the hell are you talking about, of course I'm listening". You probably even said as much back to them. And I'll go a step further with my predictions and suggest this reassurance on your behalf was met with an understanding "oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realise you actually were listening. It just seemed like you weren't. Thanks for letting me know you were. That's great. It means a lot when you listen". It's hard sometimes to convey sarcasm in writing but, just in case you missed it, that was sarcasm. You might have thought you were listening to your friend/relative/partner, like I thought I was listening to the 11 year old. But you probably weren't fully. And, unfortunately, it's not as easy as just telling someone you were, and then everything will be ok.
Newsflash! We're not as good at listening as we think we are. This isn't my first time repeating this fact but 86% of us think we are better than average listeners (just think about that one for a moment). And that's when things are calm and going well. Now imagine a scenario where someone feels compelled to tell you "you're not listening". There's a good chance there's an emotional charge at play. In which case their prefrontal cortex is ever so slightly beginning to shut down and, as a result, so is yours. Your ability to listen is now definitely more likely to decrease. So, the fact is they are probably right. You probably are not listening very well. I certainly wasn't at that time by the stairs. It's funny, I can't remember too much of the details of these episodes (it's more than 15 years ago now) but I clearly remember the indignation I felt at being accused of this by an 11 year old. I know I was hell-bent on trying to deny the accusation. I know I would tell him over and over that I was. If I just told him loudly enough, then maybe he'd believe me (ironic, eh). I also know I would complain to colleagues afterwards that he was really the one not listening, not me.
The fact is it hurts to have someone say it to you. We don't like to think that about ourselves. We like to see ourselves as virtuous and caring people most of the time. Then there's the fact that maybe it's not being said in the nicest way to us. The other person is probably upset, hence it may come out sounding a little harsh. Then we start to feel a little shame, and thus we can easily lash back. Looking back to that moment with the 11 year old, I wasn't really listening. Much as it pained me to think otherwise, much as offended my ego, much as it seemed like he was the problem. I wasn't really listening. What was he trying to tell me? Good question. With the benefit of hindsight, experience and trauma-awareness I can actually hear him now, all these years later. "Joe, you don't get it. You're asking me to do this maths homework and I'm not good at it. Trying and failing at this, and having my teacher point it out tomorrow as he mostly likely will, reminds me of all the other failures in my life. It reminds me of my parents' marriage failing and the fact I only see my dad once every six week. It reminds me of my mum failing to care for me, which I also blame myself for. I only see her once every two weeks now. It reminds me of the two schools I've already gone to and failed at. It reminds me I've failed to make a single proper friend so far and I'm 11 now. All these failures compound and become fused, so one remids me of all. And the other thing, those 4 Adverse Childhood Experiences I have means my ability to regulate emotions is way behind other kids still. I can catch up with your help, but you're going to have to really slow down yourself and lend me some of your calm to do this. Can you do that? My brain has literally been rewired by that early trauma. I need extra support right now to undo that. Can you listen to me when I say this? That's what YOU'RE NOT LISTENING actually means when I say it. Isn't it obvious to you?"
Oh that I child could actually tell you this stuff. The truth is, it wasn't even remotely obvious to me. I didn't have the training or experience at the time. I did my best though and, you know what, the kid did ok with us in the end. I remember his social worker raving about the transformation in him a few months later. So don't beat yourself up if you haven't been the best listener up until now. This isn't to say either that you need to hear every word that every kid says to you, and respond empathically every time. Who can do that? It doesn't mean you have to agree with the other person either all the time. It's not about that. But, if someone is really telling you "you're not listening", regardless of whether they are throwing themselves down the stairs at the time, then be alert. Stop and center yourself. Let the pangs of shame and the dent to your ego pass. Ask yourself "might they have a point here?" Then say to them something like "it seems like there's something important you need to say. Can you tell me? I'm listening now". They might actually have a story to tell you. Change begins with the adults. And real change begins when the adults regulate themselves. So close your mouth and open your ears and.......just.....listen.
That's Restorative Practice
My name is Joe Power and I am the RP development officer for Limerick. I thought I would write about my experiences in developing my own understanding of RP/RJ, as well as in trying to spread it across Limerick (and beyond). The reason for this is that I find that both my own and other people's experiences are remarkably similar and there could well be some opportunity for others to benefit from these thoughts (or ramblings!!). Anyway I hope you gain something from it.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.