How often do we say exactly what we’re thinking?
‘How are you?’ is the only question to which no one really wants the answer, so how do we finally drop the mask and give ourselves permission to be more real? Let’s face it, there’s often much more power in what is not said than what is. No one particularly wants to hear about problems, but continually dodging the elephant in the room doesn’t mean the elephant isn’t there.
My 17 year old client, Paul, and his father had been dodging elephants for a while and the stress was now building. Paul had secured himself a string of A*s at GCSE and been strongly advised by his father to go for STEM subjects at A level to give him greater career opportunities.
But within weeks of starting sixth form, Paul knew he had made a bad mistake. He actually loved art, music and creative writing. Doing sciences made him feel like he was ‘thinking in circles but having to express himself in squares. I feel so boxed in’ he told me but he felt unable to talk to his father about it.
Actually, Paul’s father was one of the main problems. He was a highly qualified scientist specialising in Artificial Intelligence. Worryingly, Paul described him as ‘physically present but emotionally absent.’ He often worked from home but hardly ever emerged from behind the doors of his office.
As Paul painted more of a picture of his work, personality and behaviour, I began to feel his father might have a systemising brain, a term used by Dr Simon Barron Cohen to describe those on the autistic spectrum. If my hunch was right, then he would not have an instinct that Paul was distressed at all. He would not understand that his advice to follow STEM subjects might be at odds with Paul’s natural inclination or preference. He would not have a sense of context and would probably not be able to empathise with Paul’s current dilemma.
But it went deeper than that. It turned out that Paul’s father had never told him he loved him and had never even given him a hug. Real communication had all but broken down over the years. Paul respected his father deeply and wanted a relationship with him and, after I had explained the implications of systemising brain wiring, he began to realise his father was not actually being uncaring, it was simply that probably did not have the innate skills to relate to his teenage son.
A naked conversation
Direct action would be needed. Paul had to find a way to have ‘a naked conversation’ with his father; one where he told him exactly how he felt and what his needs were. I introduced Paul to the ‘communicating difficult feelings’ template and we set to work, collating Paul’s thoughts into the essence of what he felt he needed to say. It’s a formula I’ve used many times and in many different contexts and it always has an impact. One client, Barbara, came to see me on the brink of leaving her husband.
‘He has no instinct about what is going on for me’, she said despairingly. ‘Most of the time he seems indifferent to how I’m feeling. If I want him to do something, I have to write it on a list or it doesn’t happen. I have to make all the social arrangements and even tell him what to wear or he’ll turn up in odd socks!’
The template came in very useful for Barbara, as did the systemising brain explanation. She became much more forgiving of her husband when she realised he was not being bloody-minded after all. One real up side of systemisers is that they are very loyal and have a keen sense of fair play. They are often highly intelligent too. I asked Barbara what her husband did for a living. ‘He’s a rocket scientist’ she said with a wry smile. All was becoming clear.
Even if your partner is not on the spectrum, according to relationship counsellor John Gray, author of ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ women will discuss feelings easily yet most men would rather mow the lawn ten times or lock themselves in the shed rather than have ‘that’ conversation.
The letter starts with a positive statement to open communication. There is a tendency to switch off if something looks like it will be critical.
The template can be used to structure thoughts for a spoken conversation, but putting it in writing works well when trying to communicate with a systemiser as they often miss non verbal signals, and crucially, the letter ends with a call to action.
This is what Paul wrote:
I love you because you have always stood by me. When mum left, you became my rock. You have worked so hard for us to be able to stay in this house and keep me at my school. I don’t think you know how much I admire you and the work you do.
Yet, it makes me angry when I try to talk with you about what’s worrying me and you seem pre occupied and don’t really listen.
And I feel so sad that we don’t spend time together or have fun like we used to before mum left and that communication has broken down between us.
I am frightened that I’m doing subjects at sixth form that I don’t enjoy and I’ve made a mistake I can’t undo because you won’t listen to what I’m saying.
I regret taking STEM subjects and want to do art, music and creative writing instead.
Dad, there’s something I need from you now…
I need us to talk about this and for you to come and speak to my form tutor and explain how I feel and find out if I can change subjects or what my options are
And there’s something else…
I need a hug and I need you to tell me you love me (you never have)
I wondered how Paul’s father would react.
He intended to leave the letter on his desk that evening. I needn’t have worried. When he returned the following week, Paul was like a different boy. After his father’s intervention, the school had been very sympathetic to Paul’s needs and helped him change subjects without delay. It was still early in the term. Paul was bright and would be able to catch up it was felt.
But there was another more immediate result from the letter.
‘After he read it’, Paul told me,’ he came straight out of his office, gave me the biggest bear hug and told me he loves me and is really proud of me.’
‘Result’ I said (I had to stop myself from punching the air) ‘Looks like that template might come in very handy in the future’.
Paul agreed. ‘Yes, and it might come in handy when I get married too’, he said.
Told you he was bright…