The ART of Making OVERTURES
by Patty Wipfler
When we're building bridges to someone else — our child, a sibling, a boss or someone who has become a thorn in our side — our effort needs to start with an overture. An organized, disciplined overture. A colleague, Jim, told me a lovely story. His elderly aunt survived a difficult childhood. She has always been a private, guarded person and has never spoken of some of the things Jim knows happened. He has dreamed of making it safe enough for her to be more open.
Special Time with Grownups
Jim was on his way to visit her one weekend and thought, If Special Time (see Homework: Lightening the Load, (issue #17) works to help my children feel connected to me, then it could work with my aunt. Normally, when he visits, they spend time sitting around in the same house together, coexisting but not quite knowing how to relate. This time, he quietly looked for a way to connect.
Announcing, "I want to spend time focusing on you so we can connect" would certainly not work. So when she took out her deck of cards to play solitaire - she is very good at solitaire - he quietly took out a deck too and invited his son to do the same. Another family member saw the gathering, brought over a fourth deck and sat down. Now there were four of them, all playing solitaire at the same table. It might be easy to think poorly of this arrangement, but Jim saw opportunity. He began teasing his aunt and playfully accusing her of cheating. He made a little fun here, a little there. Her smiles got bigger. There's a long tradition of teasing in the family, and his attention was pouring in her direction in a form she felt at home with. There were giggles. There was a spirit of fun. The little family band was bonding, each leaning on a solitaire game to provide the excuse to sit at the table together and enjoy the banter. Wit flashing, affection wafting: This was his visit. He later heard, "When can you come again? That was the most fun we've had in a long time!"
There's a related story that I love, one told by a dear friend. Her father is a taciturn man. He rarely talks, and almost never about himself. She was looking for a way to get closer. One Saturday afternoon, she made the long trek to visit him and decided to offer him Special Time. She asked what needed doing around the house, and he told her he wanted to prune the fruit trees in the back yard. There were many.
He directed her to work behind him. He wanted the pruned branches cut into 15-inch lengths, then bundled with twine. She is a proudly independent thinker, and to her mind, there was absolutely no need to cut the branches so short. What a waste of time and energy! But this was covert Special Time, so she followed him through the yard and cut branches just the way he wanted. They worked mostly in silence. This highly capable and creative woman made no complaints, no expressions of fatigue, no suggestions about how the job could be done better. She clipped and bundled as they made their way through the orchard.
After three hours, the job was done. They went back into the house, poured glasses of water and sat as he talked to her about his life for almost an hour, an unprecedented outpouring of communication from him.
With grownups, whose disappointments in others have cemented into carefully guarded mounds, the overture needs to be highly focused but utterly casual and transparent. We can't be "trying." We put ourselves there, edge closer, show interest and, gradually, pleasure. We let them take the lead. And we must be patient. From our side, the side that pours, we can't know the size of those mounds of disappointment that our attention must trickle around to reach its goal. It takes time and focus to pour again and again. Being pleased with the person, just as they are, makes our attention as potent as it can be.
Getting Close to Younger People
Children latch onto our overtures much more quickly. Snuggling with your child before it's time to get up, sitting on the bedroom floor during dressing time, lying on the living room floor when you're all home for the day — these are overtures. They say, "Here I am. I'm glad to be with you. Together, let's see what happens next!" Like Jim with his aunt and my friend with her father, you put yourself where the other person is, with a twinkle in your eye and a quietly disciplined focus on that person and what they like, what they want. Not on what you want or what makes you comfortable. (You can focus on those things another time.)
Maybe you set a time limit for yourself, because with an end in sight, it's easier to focus fully. With a child, it's good to let them know how many minutes of Special Time you have just for them, so they can notice the attention you offer and take full advantage of your willingness to do whatever they want. Special Time with children leads a parent into adventures they never imagined. It can lead to being asked to put your bare feet into cold, muddy puddles during a soft rain. You may find yourself tiptoeing toward squirrels in the park, digging holes as deep as you can or wandering through the toy store while your child wonders what it would be like to have each toy. You never know where this time might take you. But it will certainly lead to places and games that you would not have thought of and to corners of your child's mind that are new to you.
Focus and Persist
There's power in consciously putting aside your own needs for a period of time as you make an overture. Your focused attention is thick and rich as it pours toward a single person. The person you're honoring with your attention will begin to vibrate, visibly or invisibly, with the warmth you send. Listening is perhaps the best word we have to describe what we do when we focus the tractor beam of our attention on a loved one, a friend or someone we want to know better.
I remember one boy in a weekly play-and-homework program. I worked with him for several years. His mother was single, poor, proud and aloof. Whenever I entered the homework room and came within 20 feet of him, he would fasten his gaze on me and scream at the top of his lungs. I would meet his gaze, say hello and tell him where I was going and who I was going to be with. He kept screaming to keep me at bay. These were our interactions for the whole first year. Once in a while, he went outside to see what the other children were doing, but mostly he stayed on the edge, keeping a wary eye on me. Each little overture brought a scream. I didn't overdo it, but I didn't stop trying.
The next year, he came outside more and screamed less. One evening, he raced by and swatted me on the behind. This was amazing progress. I smiled, refocused my attention and said, "One more swat and I'm going to have to get you!" He bided his time, then delivered another running swat. I lit out after him, caught him and planted a kiss on his shoulder. He laughed and wiggled away. This began a year of swatting, chasing and laughing. We ran around the yard a lot that year. My overture was to innocently stand there and wait for him, playfully "unaware" of his stealthy approaches.
The year after that, he wanted to wrestle. We did. He was getting big. I didn't have to pretend to be challenged by his strength. I remember the night that he didn't want to stop. We wrestled for 45 minutes, me mostly pinned but struggling mightily, trying to "get" him on the outside, and on the inside, noticing, noticing. Staying with him. Being open to what was next on his agenda.
That night, I kept going until he stopped wrestling. He wanted to roll the tumbling mat around us like a burrito. I wanted to say no, feeling that this wouldn't be fair to the other children who might want to play, but I thought better of it. We rolled ourselves up inside the mats. He talked to me quietly about his life. He told me what he loved and about the kids he wanted to be friends with. He talked about school. With his eyes cast down, he asked me, "Do you like me?" and then listened for my answer with his whole self, soft and open. I said, "Yes, I like you." And I think he understood.
Patty Wipfler Founder and Executive Director of Hand in Hand, has worked for over 30 years with parents, caregivers and children throughout the U.S. and in 22 other countries. Her booklets have sold over 400,000 copies in 11 languages. She also co-authors a monthly column, "The Connected Parent," at www.CleverParents.com.
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