This story is about a four letter word. Allow me to create a scene for you. One that has happened many times over the lovely years of privilege of my work. I am sitting on a tiny chair at a little table in my playful speech pathology clinic room with a child and his mum. I am working at teaching him how to do a speech task that he just can’t do… potentially a very discouraging activity for this little guy – try and remember a time when you have had someone teach you to do something that you just can’t do! It can be a lot of no-fun!
So… I need to hold his fragile esteem and his little psyche very carefully so as not to provoke shame or lose his willingness to come along with me… He is finding the task very hard and hasn’t succeeded at it yet… but we support him again and then… lo… he does it!…and his mum and I go wild with cheers and reinforcement, telling him what a star he is! And he calmly looks at me and with complete unselfconsciousness, says “I love you Rosie”.
There is a Chinese saying that perfectly captures this moment: “The zenith of the purest sincerity breaks open metal and stone.”
So at the moment our little star tells me that he loves me everything that is hard, tense or difficult in the atmosphere immediately breaks open, mum’s eyes well up, and yet a huge smile is also on her face. Then something else happens…in a fraction of a moment I see the faintest trace of anxiety flash on mum’s face about how I might respond to this sincere and precious offering from her tiny beloved. It’s as if she’s wondering whether professionally I will have to dodge this word “love”; or whether I will honour what was just said; in the way that she would.
These words, “I love you Rosie”, are a great gift from a small person – and the return of this stone-smashing sincerity is the only way to truly honour it. In my professional world, honouring this authenticity very deeply is the professional thing to do. It is the response that is in his best interests… and so I always say “I love you too…we love each other!” And he usually says something like “mmm” and goes back to his activity – for him the world has responded as it ought. And mum’s eyes spill over.
Something very significant shifts in the relationship for all of us when this happens. There is a trust and a pleasure that enhances every part of our professional interaction going forward. We have shared something authentic and very deep. And I haven’t told any white lies, because I do love Johnny, albeit with a different intensity and level of involvement to his mum. But it is still love.
It can be challenging that ‘love’ is such an undifferentiated word in English: I love fresh figs, I love reading, I love skyscapes, I love my kids! – same word, different experiences. But engaged care, such as in the foregoing scenario, has to be front and centre if we are to achieve the outcome of building impaired communication. To get around the challenge of the undifferentiated four-letter word, speech pathologists talk about positive affect. But there’s a problem with this…
The problem is that, at first, nobody knows what this means, or what on earth we are talking about when we use this term. ‘Affect’ is the root word for ‘affection’, and is the word that we sub-in to refer to parental love and strong emotion. Positive affect, such as love and joy are main players for stimulation of the release of brain chemicals that establish and reinforce the connections that allow learning to happen. So in my world of the clinic, without positive affect, there is no deep learning of the skills of communication!
So here’s the main message: this four-letter word, the willingness to be authentically connected with each other, and stone-splitting sincerity, are centre stage for building all communication for all purposes – for children and for us big peops. We give names to positive affect such as respect, care, and honour… as well as love. These qualities support our human-beingness. They kindly hold our individual differences. They set us free to seek and share our vision for a flourishing life for self and with others. They oil, scent and spice our communication in every way.
Grow them. Enjoy them.