Monday, July 26, 2010

Facts, Feelings, & Tomato Plants

Early on as a counselor I discovered that people hear and communicate in different ways.

Some are very factual: "Tell me about your illness," I'd say, and they would begin at the beginning and describe events and treatment in great detail.

Some are very emotional: "I imagine this has been very hard for you," I'd say, and they would hold back tears, explain how difficult it's been for them and their family.
I learned that it helped when I was able to communicate with a person at the level they operated from. If I offered a supportive comment upfront to a factual person, he or she would often respond with a yes or no. "Yes, it's been hard."

And if I asked an emotional person to forego their feelings and just tell me the facts, they would usually feel as though I didn't care or didn't understand.

And sometimes, I just had no idea where to start.
These were the days, like now (full circle?) when I saw my clients in their homes. Most had had some illness or injury alter their lives, often in a large and significant way, and I was there to help them rebuild.
So if I guessed wrong:
"How does it feel to be out of work?" (I want feelings)
"Not good." ( I get nothing much)
"Walk me through what the doctor told you. (I want facts)

"Oh he was awful. I left his office and cried.' (I get emotion)

I learned to make an adjustment and start where the person was. This is important because you really can't build a trusting relationship if a person doesn't feel heard. Communicating at the same level, in a language that both people understand and are most comfortable with, is part of the science of neurolinquistics.

So often I would sit at a person's kitchen table and I would usually guess about our starting point.

And when I had no idea, either way, I would talk about tomato plants or the equivalent of tomato plants.
"Hey," I might say, "Your garden looks fantastic."

A comment like this can establish a common ground: it is a way that two people getting to know one another or have having difficulty together can break the ice and talk about something easy, take some time before figuring out whether the dialogue is going to start with facts or feelings.

Sooner or later, we would need to talk about both. And maybe still tomato plants too. Or how the kids are doing.
But at first, I'm a smart counselor to know where to start, how to help a person tell their story in a way that is most meaningful and most comfortable for who they are.

I've done a good bit of training and teaching communication and relationship building skills to all sorts of people, and I often start with Feelings, Facts, & Tomato Plants.
I thought of this tonight, when I saw my own tomato plants happily relaxing on the kitchen counter. I thought that sometimes relationships don't work so well because one person is talking facts and the other is talking feelings.

Sometimes one person's words are three feet above the other's. They can't connect that way. It helps to know when that happens, don't you think?


  1. I have realized, being in therapy for the first time in my life, that nothing is discovered easily, it's a little like big pick axes but little brushes and a gentle touch...

    I have finally realized my basement disarray is my fear of 'moving on' and seeking happiness some how without Mike.

    I felt stagnated before, and now 7 months later, I am breaking through I think.

    You must be a wonderful therapist to work with, and I look forward to meeting you next year!

  2. Very cool post kj. I love your photos, the new header and the beautiful tomatoes.

    You sound like a perfect counselor, kind, compassionate and a good listener. Finding common ground is a lovely thing to do and i'm sure goes a long way in helping people.

    And i really like the title too, would be a good name for a book!


  3. Yes i do... Now about your tomatoes X;-)

  4. Hi kj! I like this. I've never really thought about having to form a strategy (of a sort) to communicate with people. Of course, we all do it on some level, but I've never backed up from it and thought about it. There is a lesson here for me, and I am trying to grab it with my butterfly net. Lessons are tricky things to catch and keep, but I am working on it. I am betting you are an amazing therapist. xox! Pam

    PS And yes, it would help. And hey, those are some handsome tomatoes you have there! :)

  5. Sometimes when we talk and you tell me about your day it brings my childhood back to me. I really understand the darkness you have to delve into. And you know I'll never stop thinking about that puppy and that disturbed woman who thinks she's doing the right thing. I couldn't do your job simply because I'd be turning in all the pet owners and making sure they never had pets again.

    It takes a special kind of person to do what you do and to do it well. I like how you explain facts and feelings and the common ground of tomato plants.
    I also like that you aren't a counselor 24/7. You know when to just be a friend and that's important.
    Some people don't know when to turn their professions off, like grade school teachers who talk to you like you're five years old.
    I have to watch myself with 'unsolicited pet advice!'

    Anyway, nice post KJ. Another glimpse of the special person you are ;)


  6. Hmm.....wonder which type I am?

    I think you are right - there is truth to this.... and you, my Friend, excel at gently "peeling the layers back" to see that lies at the core of the problem.

    Your clients are so fortunate to have you as their guide through their journey back to "life". You are a "nourisher"...


    ♥ Robin ♥

    p.s. Your tomatoes look pretty well-nourished too!

    Kiss Stella!

  7. and sometimes quiet is one of the best communicatators...not often but just sometimes.

    your clients are are your friends

  8. You know, I have never thought about this, but with some friends I can see clearly that this is a problem, and you are right and now I can see how I can work on this.I am emotional, but I tend to attack problems from a common sense angle and mostly it does not work :-).
    You are so wise, dear Kj.

  9. Yes, its very Venus and Mars...He want to fix things/facts; She wants to express her emotions/feelings. I like your tomatoes analogy.

  10. What a great post! I have found that so often when dealing with people - we come from such different vantage points and it helps to be able to communicate with people so they can hear what we are saying. And to listen to what's beyond the words... Love that post title! I bet you are great at what you do! Love, Silke

  11. such wise words - i'm completely with you on the emotion/factual dichotomy - in fact i'm capable of having debates on that within my own self ;-)

    btw i'm in love with that foto of tomatoes --- waiting with bated breath that mine turn out that luscious. xo

  12. Tsup*!* Gardening and the weather are always good conversation starters for any situation aren't they.

  13. As I know you know, I've given this a lot of thought. Sometimes you just have to start with small talk. And then you figure out where the person is and meet them there. Even if you don't think it's the best place for them to be, you have to be with them however they need you at that moment. And that often opens other doors. It's almost a dance.

  14. Very interesting kj. I'm considered a good communicator but sometimes, I just can't make that connection. Thank goodness I'm not a counsellor I guess. I'm all about feelings . . and guarding them!

  15. teri, how often i think of you, of the task of 'letting go' or 'letting change' to someone you love so much. breaking through is wonderful, teri xoxox

    thank you ms. lori ♥

    nolly, tsup! no matter what else now, i hope you feel the love!

    "There is a lesson here for me, and I am trying to grab it with my butterfly net."

    reading a sentence like this tells me why i so love blogging and why i've become so fond of you. just beautiful. pam, sometimes i have this image when people seem to be talking different languages of words flying by one another, two rows of words all by themselves!

    lo, it's true i deal with some darkness but not always and not without light. it's an honor to do this work. i'm damn glad i know how to be a friend without preaching! whew--good thing! ♥

    wrobin, you might be surprised! :)
    thank you for always holding me up. you do. xoxo

    mim, i LOVE how you see and say things.... xoxo

    annie, well, this comment has made my day! xoxo

  16. "This is important because you really can't build a trusting relationship if a person doesn't feel heard. "

    I really liked this entire post, but especially what you said above. I am still dealing with some work things. Which reminds me...was I supposed to email you on that??! haha Seriously.

  17. thank you, lynn. good analogy yourself! xoxo

    silke, forgetaboutit if someone is not able to hear what is said. i've found that we don't need people to agree with us, but we do need to know they hear us. and yes: what's beyond the words. ♥

    amanda, hahaha having debates with yourself. me too!!! my tomatoes just turned red this week. they look good but don't yet have that august warmth juicy taste yet. that and corn on the cob is my true test of a good summer xoxo

    annie, gardening and weather, yes. but sometimes i wish it were sex and art :)

    cs, i love what you've said here. i learned alot just reading it. you are so right. sometimes it's hard to start where someone is, but you won't find her/him if you don't. wise to know... xoxo

    hells, hahaha, my beloved crusty marshmellow. sure, go ahead and hide those feelings. hahaha!

  18. This is a great,helpful post for me, kj. It's exactly how we were taught to communicate with our clients in hospice, but quite often I forget some of the finer details of communication, since I'm not a good communicator at the best of times.Certainly palliative patients can be a challenge, as well.

    I will take your words today and ponder on them. I love your tomatoes and am waiting for mine to show some colour, but it'll be another couple of weeks, at least, methinks! xo to you!

  19. The only value I've ever seen in small talk is that it is a pre-cursor to the "real deal". It is so important to listen carefully to what is being said and what that in itself says about the sayer. Too often I forget how vital this initial listening is. Ha! Patience grasshopper! Or something like that.

    I needed this reminder KJ, thank you. xx Jos

  20. marion, one of the best skills i have ever learned what how to get information without asking one single question, eg, tell me about...that sounds....i hear you saying.... etc. i know you are fabulous in your hospice work, marion. i know i would want you with me for my final journey....xoxo

    jos, secret agent nailed it. you have to start where someone is. thank you always for being here, jos. xoxo

  21. Very interesting post kj. I'm sure your line of work suits you down to the ground - you seem to know instinctively what to say to help! Those tomatoes look good!