SimonYesterday, my daughter lost her sweater. It was a gift from her grandmother, and she was despondent as we retraced her steps.  As I was fumbling my way underneath some aluminum bleachers where we had been sitting, a guard approached and told me I wasn’t allowed under there. Even though I didn’t catch a word of what he said, I knew by his body language that he meant for me to leave.

I responded with all the pertinent French I knew: “I’m sorry. I don’t speak very much French. My daughter. Her sweater. I’m searching,” followed by a series of hand gestures to fill in the gaps in my language, mentally making a note to come home and add, She has lost her sweater to my growing list of phrases to master.

He responded. I caught the word trouvé (found) and the word cabine (booth, kiosk, cubicle). I nodded. Oui, s’il vous plaît. He pointed the directions as he spoke.

At the cabine, I repeated the same set of French words to an understanding employee. He disappeared in the back and came out with the leopard print sweater with plastic buttons that look like crystals. Simone almost started crying, she was so happy.

Since moving to Switzerland, I’ve been thinking a lot about language and communication, and I’ve come to a conclusion:

Language – verbal and non-verbal – is not enough. In order for communication to take place, you also have to observe with empathy and perspective taking.

In order for us to find Simone’s sweater, I needed help from people who could step inside of our situation to make meaning from my broken verbal language and confusing non-verbal charades.

Consider a newborn, squirming uncomfortably in his onesie. He grimaces, turns his head from side to side, clenches his fists, arches his back, and begins to cry. As we attend to his cries and his non-verbal squirms, we come to the conclusion that he is uncomfortable – perhaps in his position, perhaps in his diaper, perhaps with the lighting. Language alone tells us he is upset, but it is through empathy and perspective that we are drawn into his context to make meaning: a wet diaper or a bright light that might be the source of the discomfort.

Consider an 18-month old, crying when her father leaves her for the day with her daycare provider. The little girl is upset, crying, reaching for the door, saying “Gah! Gah!” Her language alone tells us she is sad, but it is through our empathy and perspective taking that we make meaning. She is sad because her dad left, worried that he might not return, and feeling disconnected from the people around her. We respond from the place of understanding, finding her a picture of her dad to reassure her of his presence while he is away, and we invite her to join in connecting with the group.

Consider a four-year-old who picks a dandelion for his friend to blow. The two fought earlier over blocks, and this is the first gesture after the disagreement. His non-verbal kindness communicates friendship, but through our empathy and perspective taking, we are drawn into the context to make meaning. We see that he is extending an apology, and a desire to repair a broken relationship.

Consider a five-year-old who, upon seeing a dinner she dislikes, screams at her parents: “That’s why I HATE living this family!” Her words communicate deep emotions, but judging the words alone leaves us short of the actual message she is conveying. Through empathy and perspective taking, we see that her words come from a place of fear. She is so hungry, and worried she won’t be able to eat because the meal is so unappealing. If we respond strictly to the communicated message, we risk straining the relationship, but when we think about what it feels like to be hungry and faced with unappetizing food, we can hear the words for what they are saying.

I think the practice of relating closely to those who do not share our language is a profound exercise in developing communication skills. We develop these skills in ourselves, and we model a style of communication that relies on these skills with our children.