A quart into a pint-pot: how to spread the word

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.06.27It’s Parental Alienation Awareness Day everyone. So let’s spread the word. I’ve written about that before: PR for PA. We want to reach the unconverted as well as preach to the converted. This post is the long of it. The next one’s the short of it.

Watching the video of a US public hearing got me thinking again. Many of us are bursting with passion and concern if not anger. But if we pour it all out on those we hope will listen, they are more likely to switch off.

Of course, there is lots to learn from the content of books and resources like that US video from the Connecticut Task Force on Legal Disputes on Care and Custody of Minor Children. Steve Miller and Linda Gottlieb are two of the expert authors we have come to value as we work out what we do here in the UK. Each of them has an important chapter in the important book Working With Alienated Children and Families: A Clinical Guidebook by Amy Baker and Richard Sauber. It’s great to see them in person, and hear another version of their ideas.

We could spend many hours here comparing what they say in a US context with how it is in the UK. Some things we may be pleased not to have here. Other things would be good in the UK too. But this post is not about ‘the content’ of that public hearing. It’s about ‘the form’ of it, about lessons for others from how Steve and Linda performed there.

A quart into a pint-pot

Trying to pack into a few minutes what one knows about any field of knowledge – and especially about our often rejected field of Alienation – is like trying to get a quart into a pint-pot. Or it’s like packing up to move house when you only have a ruck-sack to put it all into. It is an even bigger challenge when you feel you have an precious opportunity to tell something important. Everything must be said. But only a few main points can possibly be covered and understood by listeners given the few minutes.

Your listeners have a hard job too. Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 13.04.47Even at a conference, you sit through a series of packed lectures and workshops but no one helps you make sense of it all, how all the presenters seem so sure about their own different angle on things. In that US public hearing context, the listening audience is mainly the task group in charge. But they’ve also got a whole lot of people and their ruck-sacks lined up, to keep to time, to listen to, to question, and then to digest it all and write it up. They are going to need and appreciate all the help they can get. It’s a good idea to think ahead how to help them.

So our two experienced presenters, Steve and Linda, are in my view frustrating … they have not really packed their ruck-sacks well enough ahead of the event. You would have thought that being experienced, they would have known better how to fit into what was required there. You’d think they’d know how to avoid frustrating or annoying the people who want their help, the people who they are so keen to help.

I think they should have been more aware of what the Task Group’s purposes were, what practicalities they face in running the event: the short time available for each witness, the need for providing a report in advance, ready to answer a couple of questions, and summarise clearly when asked. If you want anyone to take your views on board, you have to look after your listener, your audience, and their needs and expectations. You have to work out where they are coming from and going to, and be ready or familiar with how to respond so they feel you are helping them and their concerns. That’s not easy.

Look after your listener: a case example

Thinking about who you’re trying to engage with as a priority applies to lots of contexts. It is the same point Karen Woodall makes in a comment arising from her superb recent post on working with aligned parents in alienated families. Think of the other person, plan ahead, leave aside high hopes, stick to the pragmatic management – these principles are evident in this comment of hers:

… Yes those things are true, but what are you going to do Mickey, spend your days wringing your hands or get on and do something. The “nasty little skip rat” doesn’t need to know what you are doing and you don’t have to reason with her.  There are many ways to skin a “nasty little skip rat” (though one of them to my mind would be to reframe your use of labelling of your children’s mother away from such wording and towards a level of understanding of why she is doing what she is doing – doesn’t mean you have to like it or give a toss about it but it does mean you need to understand it in order to work out what you can do next). People who are not a full deck need managing just as much as people who can reason with you do. You just have to find a different way of doing that.

So, however justifiably upset and angry you are, if you don’t think about how other people will see you when you unleash that, then you may be worsening the very thing you want to make better. This is easy to say; it is very hard to do. To some extent it leads to a preliminary decision: How to choose and plan where and who you meet for what, so that it is not going to be so impossible to do.

Lessons from a public hearing

So, watching the public hearing video, the main thing I see is lessons for us all to learn … lessons of what we need to do when we have opportunities to talk to audiences and influence key people. Maybe lessons for more personal or case work situations too like Karen works with.

I am empathising here, not criticising Steve and Linda. I’ve faced similar packing challenges in trying to pack ‘everything’ into 30 mins ‘ruck-sack’ overview at our London event last October. And in expanding that ruck-sack into a suitcase of my ‘concise but comprehensive overview’ of the whole field for the UK. And recently it took us a lot of work packing together the limited number of right words for the London conference report published recently in Context, our family therapy magazine. Here is David Secrett’s original full report that we had to condense down to publish. But here you can read it in full!

Because of the hard work preparing these condensed resources, they are worth looking at. And hopefully they do not annoy the reader. Let us know if they do. The obvious question is: Well, what are your three sound bites for three minutes on Alienation then?! And of course there is no universal answer to that. If it’s possible at all!  But I now do have a steady series of different kinds of meeting with individuals or with groups or events. Most of them are an hour or more, not just three minutes.

Here’s what I do … Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 13.12.49

I have worked really hard on that overview to be as easily and widely readable yet properly referenced so that it is indeed a concise and comprehensive picture of the whole field with case examples too for the interested person. I ask the person or group I’m going to meet to do a bit of advanced homework: “Please read my overview in advance”. This approach means I have already solved the problem of trying to pack everything into the meeting or presentation. I feel much more relaxed and open about the event because I have already told people everything!

Then, at the actual meeting, instead of doing that impossible, frustrating, counterproductive, quart into a pint-pot thing, I can take a one-down position. I invite my readers and listeners to talk to me, to feedback and lead the discussion – what did you think of the overview? did you understand it? what isn’t clear? were you persuaded? would other people be persuaded? how do you think I could improve it? what would you like to talk about further now? and so on.

Of course, our blog here is another way to do the same sort of thing – ask you to read and comment. Other contexts are much more challenging: Courts, media interviews, and public hearings are places where you have to be very well-prepared for everything and anything that comes at you. You may indeed only have just a few minutes to work with plus a fresh questioner – they’re likely not to have done any advance reading – plus a big audience watching you. So, if you are going to do that kind of work, do watch the video of Steve and Linda and – while learning from their expertise – think about how they could have prepared better.

Next …

After this lengthy talk on how hard it is to say it all in 3 minutes, the next post is our gold medal example of exactly how a quart into a pint pot can be done!

Nick Child, Edinburgh

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About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink now family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

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