Not long ago Abigail, my first grandchild came along to change my life. Join me now for a typical “empathic listening” session with Abigail.
Abigail is searching for connection. Her eyes scan my face. She makes eye contact, looking intently into my face. I’m beginning to understand that she really wants to understand who I am. For my part I, too, want to share more of her inner life. The problem is she has no words and we humans depend on speech to reach out to one another. Or do we?…. I’m struck by the thought that just because she can’t say what she’s thinking doesn’t mean that a huge amount of observation and processing of information isn’t going on in her sponge-like new brain. Science tells us that babies are far more aware than we ever dreamed.
I struggle with how to bridge the communication gap with my little granddaughter. I don’t want to wait until she can talk to me. For decades I’ve taught listening skills. There must be a way Abigail and I can establish a wordless, empathic communication.
In regular empathic listening we tune into the other person, imagining as much as is possible what it’s like to be that other person. We stay in touch with our own inner felt sense, like a fine-tuned instrument picking up on the other’s emotional state. This is about far more that mere words. Sometimes words hardly matter. Could Abigail and I figure out how to do this?
We start one morning when Abigail’s lying on the soft cushions of the sofa, chortling and shaking her favourite rattle. I move in close to her, looking down at her face, seeking her permission to pick her up. Her wise eyes search my face, wondering what’s about to happen, then she reaches up to touch my face. I take her on my lap and wait for her to begin our listening session.
At last she makes a clucking sound. Maintaining eye contact I imitate her cluck. For a second she is thoughtful. Then she makes a dental dddddda. I do the same. Abigail says mamamamaaaa. I echo her. Several more sounds continue as Abigail “speaks” and I respond empathically. At last, she makes a funny sound, a “raspberry.” I return the rude sound and Abigail laughs and laughs. She’s been heard. She reaches for my face again and pulls my hair while I kiss her neck and cheeks. Together we collapse in joy, experiencing the intimacy of our connection.
This continues on a daily basis. I’m careful to mirror back Abigail’s hand movements, her facial expressions and her tone of voice. I’m responding with the same level of energy she sends out. As much as is possible I am experiencing how it feels to be Abigail and I’m letting her know, by resonating her feeling state, that I really care about how she feels and that I really want to know how she’s experiencing her life.
Okay, so I’ve entered Abigail’s inner life. Maybe she’d like to know more of what’s happening inside me. We begin another day with waiting until Abigail signals that she’s ready. I hold her close, then maintain eye contact. Again, she plays with my hair and snuggles her face into the nape of my neck.
I sit her on my lap where she can see my face.
“You’re my wonderful A-Bi-Gail,” I croon. …I’m Grandma Mary. …Grandma Mary loves you.
She looks blissful.
“I’m so glad you’re here. I waited for you to come into my world. I waited for you (kissing her face) to be part of our family. I’m so glad you’re here. “
At this point Abigail looks away. She’s telling me she can’t tolerate any more emotional intensity. Oh good, that means she’s learning to regulate her own affect.
Each day we are together we repeat more or less the same listening “protocol,’ if I can call it that. Here are the guidelines for Empathic Listening to Baby.
1) Wait until the baby shows he/she is ready and interested in interacting with you.
2) Imitate the baby’s sounds. Treat them as you would an adult’s speech.
3) Mirror hand movements, facial expressions and any body language.
4) Be sensitive to and reflect feeling states.
5) When the baby turns away from you, respect his/her need to break off the intensity of the connection.