Thinking Out Loud

Two Stories—Two Pictures

Ned is a very active seven year old boy—tireless and constantly in motion. His continuous imaginative play is captivating, both to himself and to anyone watching him. Within a minute of seeing a stick and a piece of crumpled up paper, for example, he has combined them with other objects to form a spaceship that he weaves in and out of many worlds.

Often, though, it is difficult to get Ned’s attention because he is so absorbed in play/thought/imagination. If you ask him a question or give him direction, he’ll respond as though he’s heard you but he doesn’t follow through…or so it seems. When his parents try to talk to Ned about listening and following through, he seems distracted and uncomfortable, and the session often accomplishes little except giving all involved a not-so-healthy level of frustration. Mary and Kevin, Ned’s parents, are concerned that his level of absorption will cause big problems for him at school and beyond.

Mary especially is tireless in her attempts to engage him and help him focus better. As she explored the communication styles framework, she recognized that Ned has a strong visual-spatial and kinesthetic world. He tends to think in pictures and focuses his attention on creating and experiencing. Therefore, using words to connect with him would likely be ineffective.

One day when Ned and Mary were at the park, they watched as two boys, some distance away, played with a ball. When the ball bounced toward them, Ned picked it up and began bouncing it in a pattern relating to the cracks in the pavement. Mary instructed him to return the ball to the boys. Ned replied, “I am.” His mother retorted, “No, you’re not. Give it back now.” The conversation went back and forth like this, and eventually Ned rolled the ball back to the boys.

Then Mary asked him to go sit in a nearby hammock and picture two scenes: the one that just occurred and another where he simply handed the ball back to the boys. Ned sat dreamily in the hammock for about five minutes and then said, “Oh, I get it. I should have given the ball back right away because they were playing a game with it.” Mary saw this as a breakthrough moment, and it was.

Typically in a follow-up discussion of this sort, Ned would defensively explain that he was giving the ball back because, in fact, he was, but it was in a manner that suited him and was not congruent with anyone else’s reality. This time it was different. As Ned tuned into his imaginative world to reflect, he observed his creative process for returning the ball (which he fully intended to do) and observed the scene from the perspective of the two boys. Once he visualized both pictures, he realized what was most important—the right thing to do in this situation. Tapping into Ned’s natural language in the visual-spatial realm gave him an opportunity to connect to a bigger picture and understand what was important to others.

As Mary and I talked about this, we explored the possibility of helping Ned use an imaginary pause button when she’s trying to get his attention. Because the compelling pictures he constantly visualizes makes it hard for him to focus on input from others, learning to press the pause button might help Ned focus on what Mary is saying. It’s an experiment worth trying. Using the communication styles lens often can help us creatively and specifically solve problems.

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