Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Power of Words, Even in Our Own Voices

I had an interesting experience yesterday.  On a whim, I attended a monthly meeting of the Grief Support Network.  This is a great local organization, with an excellent web site and resources.  There is a monthly meeting with a speaker, and the topics are always interesting.  However, I can’t usually go.  I have a standing meeting at the hospital at a conflicting time, one that I can’t miss.  Yesterday the meeting was cancelled, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

The topic was “forgiveness,” and especially forgiving oneself.  As a part of the presentation, the speaker passed out a “mirror script” – that is, a set of affirmations one might read to oneself.  By reading the affirmations while looking in a mirror, one can get something of the experience of hearing them from another person, adding a sense of visible presence to hearing the words.  Since we didn’t have mirrors in the meeting, the speaker had us pair off and read them to one another.  Each of us heard this list of affirmations read by another.

As is always the case with such exercises, it felt stilted and awkward and artificial (even though each of us did his or her best to read the words with some feeling).  Beyond that, I am of a certain age and a certain inclination.  So, with all due respect to the presenter, I couldn’t get out of my head the image of Stuart Smalley, the character from Saturday Night Live.

But also I did feel something.  Even in that artificial setting, the words were good to hear.  And, since I am really pretty conscious of and concerned about my sins, I do have those things in my history for which I feel some need to forgive myself, even where I have been forgiven by another or when my concern is less a misdeed and more simple failure to meet my own standards.  So, I was aware of my need for forgiveness, and hearing the affirmations did feel good.

That happens more often than we know.  I frequently speak with students or others about reflective listening.  Of course, critical to reflective listening is testing out and confirming what one has heard.  So, often when reflective listening is taught the first step is, “What I hear you saying is….”  That little piece of script also feels stilted and awkward and artificial.  As a result, many students in the helping professions resist that phrase.  Unfortunately, they end up also resisting the practice.  As the student resists saying, “What I hear you saying is…,” the student also ends up not simply repeating back, but also interpreting and answering.  The student doesn’t confirm, but instead tries to take the next step – and sometimes in fact they haven’t heard what the speaker intended, but don’t know because they haven’t confirmed.

So, the educator presses back again: “Make sure you’ve understood.  Again: ‘What I hear you saying is….’”  As artificial as it seems, the students work through the exercise; and they discover that, as artificial as it seems, the students feel better for having felt heard.

Some readers may be aware of the computer program ELIZA.  ELIZA was originally intended as a means to test how humans might interact with computers, and whether a program could be written well enough that a user might not be able to tell whether he or she was relating to the program or to a human being.

A DOCTOR script was written for ELIZA, that did a pretty good job of simulating reflective listening.  Remember, too, that this was back in the days of teletype interfaces and early CRT displays, so there was nothing like the capacity to simulate interaction that our more sophisticated programs manage today.  However, even when simply reading the words as they clattered on the printer or as they appeared on an old green monitor, and even when the user was conscious that he or she was relating to a computer, folks felt better and felt heard.  Some also attributed meaning and even feelings to the computer.  This was consistent enough, and also disturbing enough to the researcher, that he dubbed it “the ELIZA Effect,” to describe humans projecting feelings onto computer interactions.

While I’m sure some projection of the users’ own feelings was going on, I also think that there was something about reading those words and processing them in the users’ minds that was meaningful for the users.  That is, the users found it comforting and affirming to receive and think about those words, even in the artificial syntax of explicit reflective listening, and even in the artificial setting of an early computer interface.  The words were powerful enough in themselves and in the minds of the users that it didn’t matter that the users knew they were interacting with a computer program with no intelligence of its own, much less emotion.  The computer program didn’t in any sense really care, and yet the words were sufficiently powerful enough that users felt cared for – and some felt it strongly enough to project a sense of emotion onto the program.

My point is simply to reflect on the power of words for us human beings, and for the value of hearing words that clarify and comfort and affirm.  They are powerful, even if the context seems awkward and artificial.  They are meaningful, even if the words themselves seem stilted and trite.  We enjoy them, and even benefit from them, however we hear them – even in our own voices, spoken to a mirror.

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