In the previous two parts of this series I have talked about the attitudes of non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind and trust. My opinion is that while regular practice in intensive interaction can teach us about these attitudes implicitly, our practice can be enhanced if we intentionally try to develop these attitudes and consciously apply them to our practice. To continue the series then we shall look at the attitudes of non-striving and acceptance.
Non-striving: One of the most fundamental features of intensive interaction is often described as ‘tasklessness’, a concept first highlighted (to me at least) by Hewett and Nind in their book Access to Communication (1994). In contrast to interactions that have specific objectives communicated to the learner through instructions, tasklessness places the emphasis upon the process of interaction rather than a particular result. In the same book, Hewett and Nind explain that “this process and its potential to provide a learning experience is more important than an objective” and that another perspective would be to say that the “objective is to get the process going”. How then should be we approach this process and how can we be certain that our objective of setting up the process does not become another task?
Learning about mindfulness can help us answer this questions. Jon Kabat Zinn does not use the word tasklessness but instead offers us the concept of non-striving. He explains that almost everything we do is for a purpose, to get something or somewhere and that this attitude is a real obstacle to mindfulness. For example, if you approach an interaction with the idea of ‘we are going to do the clapping game’ or ‘it would be great if Jonny gave me good eye contact’ then you have introduced an idea into your mind of what should be happening or of what success looks like and along with this comes the notion that what is happening now is not ok or successful. In practice, a practitioner with this attitude will be observed to ‘do too much’, attempting to cue interactions and initiate themes as they try to mould the interaction according to how they imagine it should be. In contrast, a mindful approach would be to pay close attention to your partner’s behaviour and just try to respond to this appropriately by joining in with what your partner is doing. Once we have stopped striving for the interaction to be a certain way, it is easier to accept our partner’s behaviour as it is right now and relax into the interaction. When we can relax then our partner will feel relaxed too and it is more likely that the kind of things that we were striving for may naturally evolve. I would go further than this and say that the success we strive for will always be limited by what we conceive of success as looking like, but if we relax and follow our partner then the resulting interaction could far exceed our expectations.
At Woolley Wood I have had many conversations with staff about how their engagement with the many tasks that are important to the running of the classroom (teaching, feeding, changing, recording) creates an attitude of constant doing and how a change of approach (to that of being) is needed when we engage in Intensive Interaction. In Access to Communication Hewett and Nind highlight this problem when they explain that as teachers ‘it was our job to set tasks and objectives for sessions and make sure that they are fulfilled” and in my work at Woolley Wood I see this is compounded by the additional tasks that must be fulfilled with respect to children’s care needs. In my experience, learning about social engagement happens when a child can explore the social environment in the same playful, self motivated way that a child explores the physical environment. To facilitate this exploration we must be able to share our partner’s space in a relaxed way so that opportunities for social engagement are naturally available. To do this we must stop the habitual attitude of striving that we have learnt as we engage in our day to day doing, pay more attention and learn how to be with our partner. The most straightforward way to do this is to follow your partner’s lead and join in with whatever they are doing.
To offer a simple metaphor, if you were called to the head teacher’s (or line manager’s) office how would you share their space in a relaxed way? What would you talk about? I imagine that the sensible approach would be to talk about what they want talk about and agree to do what they want you to do otherwise the situation might feel a bit uncomfortable. If you reject what the head says and start talking about your agenda then it is likely that things won’t feel so relaxed. Our approach should be similar when we begin intensive interaction… your communication partner is your boss and you’re going to do what they say!
As a conclusion, the last paragraph of Jon Kabat Zinns text on non striving can be seen as an excellent exposition of intensive interaction with only one word needing to changed. See for yourself…
“In the mindfulness [intensive interaction] domain, the best way to achieve your goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement towards your goals will take place by itself. This movement becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen..”
Acceptance: An attitude that is clearly linked to that of non-striving is that of acceptance. As jon Kabat Zinn notes, this does not mean that we have to be satisfied with things as they are or that we are resigned to tolerating things as they ‘have to be’. Neither does it mean that we should give up on our desire for change and growth or avoid getting involved in situations because they are the way they are and therefore hopeless. Acceptance as we are speaking of it means a willingness to see things as they are. This attitude then sets the stage for acting appropriately, no matter what is happening.
Placed into the context of intensive interaction we can begin to talk about our willingness to accept our partner’s behaviour as it is now rather than how we would like it to be. If you can accept your partner and really see what they are doing then this sets the stage for a more appropriate response to their behaviour and an increased likelihood that your response will have meaning for your partner. To paraphrase Jon Kabat Zinn, you are much more likely to know what to do and have the inner conviction to act when you have a clear picture of what is happening versus when your vision is clouded by your mind’s judgments and desires. In mindfulness meditation practice this acceptance is cultivated by taking each moment as it comes and being fully with it, as it is. By taking this attitude to our intensive interaction practice we will also cultivate and develop acceptance too. We can remind ourselves to be receptive and open to whatever we are seeing and and experiencing and to accept it because that is what is happening right now. The more we practice this the better we will get at it and more appreciative our partner will be of our ability to be with them in a way that they find genuinely meaningful.