Here’s another in my toolbox series of techniques that inspire me to live with joy, compassion and courage, as inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga — my nominee for patron saint of special needs parents.
When it comes to raising kids with special needs, there are a lot of gatekeepers who get to be on our “team”– insurance company reps, city officials, special ed departments, healthcare providers, state agency eligibility screeners.
Cultivating trusting relationships with these folks is essential to me; not just because I believe in the old adage about catching more flies with sugar than with vinegar, but because treating people with respect and compassion and humanity is important to my integrity. Confrontation is so draining. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to pay off some old bad karma!
Though from time to time an impasse occurs and it is tempting to lose my temper in anger or fear. Often what’s going through my mind is those situations are questions like: “How can they expect my child to make progress with so little?” or “How dare they tell me what’s best for my child?” or even “This person seems to like my child a lot and they have a lot of expertise, but why doesn’t what they’re proposing feel right to me?”
Blurting out these questions, especially in a tone of mistrust, anger or rage can damage these relationships. In my experience, even calm-headed, straight-out debating — trying to convince the person whose opinion differs from mine why their position is “wrong” — doesn’t often work either. They often shut down, get defensive, dig their heels in deeper. It’s useful in these situations to have a go-to strategy that keeps the conversation productive.
In their popular and helpful book Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy – The Special Education Survival Guide, authors and advocates Pam and Pete Wright propose what they call “The Columbo Strategy”:
“Tell the School Staff that you are confused. You want to ask a stupid question.”
Remember Columbo? With his trademark cigar and his hand to his forehead, he’d give his suspects plenty of rope with which to hang themselves in the form of one “stupid question” (usually when his hand was on the door and he was about to leave). Always friendly, never confrontational, he’d play the seeming fool before tripping them up in their own lies.
Employing the Columbo Strategy, you can sometimes bring the team around without having a head-on confrontation. Telling educators and other helpful people that you have a stupid question usually brings out their desire to help and mentor. I must admit I’ve used this technique successfully in meetings to illicit an increase in resources without having to ask for it directly.
The problem for me with this technique is that it feels duplicitous and can make people feel “handled.” The key is to keep a curious, neutral tone and to actively listen to their answer.
In Zen Buddhism, this state of openness and curiosity is referred to as Beginner’s Mind. In this space, one has no preconceived answers, only an eagerness to learn. While this might seem like a powerless posture to assume in a negotiation for something as important as your own child’s needs, it can be exactly the opposite. It doesn’t create defensiveness in others because it is at its heart an open, inclusive, team-oriented state.
Beginner’s Mind can reveal a lot of illogical holes in systems. Asking “why?” over and over again, when it leads to responses like “Because that’s the way we always do it,” or “Because we don’t have a budget to do any more,” is an extremely effective tool, especially when you simply let such answers hang in the air.
There are no guarantees of course. Each situation calls for its own approach, but having a sincere beginner’s mind is never a bad starting place, in my experience.