Conduits for Communication
(originally written over 1 year ago)
I have been working as a trainer, consultant and storyteller for many years now and on my journey, sometimes through tangled, fairytale forests, where I have felt lost, sometimes through wild and wonderful landscapes where I have felt small and unknowing, certain signposts and magical helpers, (often in the form of books or TED talks!) have appeared and helped me make sense of each landscape and understand my reason for being there.
Anyone who has been on my training will know that I use objects, usually of a non-literal type, varying in textures and colours. These help people sequence narrative in a way that makes sense to them. I also use them to develop language and to allow participants to externalise their internal world, again in a way that makes sense to them. This point is very important to me, the internal world of a child from Kumasi in Ghana, for instance may be different to the internal world of a child from Leamington Spa. Symbols/objects will be different, carry differing messages. The image or symbol for an Ashanti Chief/King may be a golden stool, perhaps not a golden crown, though to a child born and raised in the social narratives of the UK this may make more sense.
I cannot remember what triggered me to use this technique of sensory objects, or enhance it with a rope to provide a narrative/sequential line. Perhaps it was the fact that as a child, I went through many years of selective mutism. I could not access my voice to tell my story and so, for many years teachers thought I did not have a story to tell, so perhaps I wanted to enable people with no voice to share their stories. However recently, at a conference on ‘Tackling Sensitive Issues,’ I realised the full impact that these techniques have and why they work so well with people who have suffered trauma, who are experiencing stress or who struggle with speaking.
My passion for neuroscience means that I know the impact that stress can have on the brain and how that sometimes affects behaviour. I also know that narrative stimulates certain parts of the brain and that we, as humans need to place events and experiences in a narrative in order to make sense of them. In addition to this I am aware that personal metaphor, is often seen as the language of the sub-conscious.
When a person has suffered trauma, they often are unable to verbalise what happened to them or sequence it. The trauma can appear as fragmented and powerful flashbacks that the individual often feels they cannot control. They are within the trauma, they are witnessing/experiencing it from being within it. Imagine if they could take a series of objects, tangled clumps of wool, rough sandpaper, metal graters, bristled brushes, dark fabrics, light fabrics etc. and notate their story without verbalising anything, they put it outside their body, using the objects almost as tangible metaphors.
Imagine them looking at their ‘story’ as external to them suddenly. Then imagine them talking about this thing that is external to them, making sense of it almost as a witness to it, not as a victim. This technique can be used anywhere with a wide range of people, it is not based on literacy ability or resources; stones, leaves and twigs can be used when other things are not available. It is often the first time that the individual has been able to see the whole picture of their lives/experience laid clear, outside of their minds. It allows them to ‘think straight,’ 'see straight.’ Can you sense how powerful this may be for them? They are no longer in the experience, being controlled by it, it is the start of them being out of it, witnessing it, sequencing it, narrating it, rather than allowing it to narrate them.
I am certainly not saying we should all use this with people who are traumatised and who need specialist care. I am not suggesting that anybody unqualified should go around thinking they can work with people who are suffering so intensely. What I am offering is a way of allowing people, in safe, supported situations, to make sense of their stories/experiences in a way that may not be within the frame of reference of you as a facilitator/trainer who lives in a verbal, literate environment.
We tend to think people experience the world in the same way we do, especially the internal experience. Most of us would assume that when people imagine the letter ‘A,’ they see the same ‘A’ that we do. I assure you, they do not. I always start conferences by asking the audience to imagine the letter, then I ask how many saw an apple or object that begins with ‘A,’ several hands go up, how many saw a capital letter ‘A,’ quite a few hands go up, how many saw lower case, different hands are raised, how many saw a red ‘A,’ green ‘A,’ blue ‘A’… hands continue to go up. If we cannot even imagine the later ‘A’ in the same way, why do we assume people will be able to communicate a whole story in the way we do?
If we are in the work of communication then we need to create a range of conduits that allow people to share their experiences and stories. This is just one way that has been successful for me and those I have had the honour of working with. I wish you well in your journeys and connections.