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The Giraffe Mediator

Have you ever found yourself struggling with your child over something you want her to do, knowing that you want to communicate calmly, but feeling the waves of frustration and anger growing in you? I recently discovered the difference a giraffe puppet mediator can make in those moments.

A puppet mediator? How can a puppet mediate, you wonder?

In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), giraffes are used as symbols for "the language of the heart" because giraffes have the largest hearts of any land animal. They need those large hearts to pump blood up their long necks to their brains. (Sometimes I think that this is an apt metaphor for the disconnection between our human hearts and brains, and that by learning NVC we are metaphorically enlarging our hearts so we can pump more blood into the region of our heads responsible for making decisions.)

In our workshops, we often use a giraffe puppet in role play to represent someone trying to use NVC. We use a jackal puppet to represent someone using the habits of speech we are more accustomed to, such as judgments and demands, that don't support the quality of connection, understanding, or consideration we want. But I hadn't thought to bring these puppets into my relationship with my five-year-old son until this year.

I no longer remember what the argument was about, but I remember the moment of inspiration. I felt completely lost, not knowing how to help us shift into more connection. I was stuck in what I wanted, he was stuck in what he wanted, and neither of us was willing to budge. Worse yet, my son wasn't willing to talk any more, and I felt completely helpless about how to resolve the situation.

I went to my study and returned with my "work bag," which holds my giraffe and jackal puppets. I put the giraffe puppet on my right hand and the jackal puppet on my left. I told the giraffe puppet what was going on for me, and she offered me empathy by guessing my feelings and needs. The jackal, meanwhile, interjected to my son every once in a while. "Arrrrr!" he would start, in the angriest voice I could muster. "Hitting will solve it!" My son looked concerned and said to the jackal: "No, don't hit! Talk about it!" This was a role reversal! My son was educating the jackal on the merits of nonviolent conflict resolution.

Then the giraffe said to me: "I think you're forgetting something about your son." "Really?" I inquired. "What is it?" "When you're having a conflict, sometimes he wants a little space to think about things before you continue to talk about them." I turned to my son and asked him directly: "Is that what's going on?" "Yes!" he replied. I felt relieved and encouraged. The giraffe's insight - I can't really say it was my own because I didn't have it until the giraffe showed up - helped meet both my son's need for space and care and my need for understanding what was going on. But the solution didn't end there. The giraffe continued to empathize with my son as well as with me, and within two minutes we were reconnected and happy.

So what if I was the one making the giraffe's voice? I changed my voice a little to make it the giraffe's unique voice; I looked at the giraffe while she was talking to indicate that I was listening to her; and she transfixed both me and my son. It seemed to me that, by using the giraffe puppet, I was able to tap into that deeper place in myself I wish to have access to in my hardest moments. I came through in the way I want to come through: truly caring for both my son's and my own needs rather than getting locked into meeting only mine; staying calm and peaceful in the face of conflict; and reaching for connection and understanding.

Since that first time I used the giraffe and jackal puppets, I have pulled them out of my work bag a few more times. I use them sparingly, keeping them for when I really don't know what to do without their help, because I don't want either my son or me to become desensitized to their charms or power. With their help, I have witnessed what seemed like near miracles to me. I'll share one more story.

My son built something with one of his construction toys, told me it was a "ride", and then wanted me to get on for a ride. I told him that after I finished the ride, I was going to make a picnic lunch for him to take with him on his trip to the zoo with friends. Then I "got on" the ride, oohing and ahhing as it "took off." Just as it was done, the phone rang, and I went to answer it.

When I got off the phone, my son came over and told me to get on for another ride. When I told him that I wanted to make lunch and a phone call, he said that I had paid for two rides and that I had to take the second ride. This was news to me, and I wasn't amenable to it. At another time, I would have gladly rejoined the game, but I knew that our friends were going to arrive momentarily and that lunch wasn't ready, so I really wanted to make the lunch.

We went back and forth, with my trying a bit to empathize with him and to express myself, all in NVC. But whereas usually this approach helps us tremendously, in this instance we weren't getting anywhere. In fact, my son upped the ante by refusing to talk about what was going on and announcing that he was sending out a ray that would beam me into the ride so I wouldn't be able to prepare the food. Like most people, I don't respond well to commands. When I hear a command, I feel almost compelled to do the exact opposite. And so I started to make the lunch. He invented elaborate ways to "beam me" into the ride, and I insisted on going about my business. Fortunately, I caught on to myself: I was in a power struggle, and the way to end a power struggle is for whoever catches on to stop engaging in it. I went to the study to get help.

I returned with the giraffe on my hand, and told her that I didn't know what to do because my son wasn't willing to talk with me about what was going on. She asked if I was feeling frustrated and needed a way to meet both our needs, which was, as usual, a helpful inquiry. Then she turned to my son and asked him what was going on. He spoke to me again, repeating a variation on the theme of getting me on the ride with the ray he had constructed. The giraffe spoke to him again: "So you're really wanting completion with what you were playing?" His energy suddenly shifted. He stopped talking to me, turned his face to the giraffe, and spoke directly to her. "She took one ride but she paid for two and I want her to take the second ride," he told her. "Oh, so you really want to finish what you started?" the giraffe asked. Then, completely unexpectedly, my son replied, "She doesn't want to take the second ride, so I could give her the money back." "You have an idea about how to solve this," the giraffe commented, then turned to me and asked, "Will that work for you?" I confirmed that it would. "Does it really work for you?" the giraffe checked with my son. He confirmed that it did. Then she said, "It seems to me that you thought what you wanted was for your mother to take the ride. Then you discovered that what you really needed was a way to complete your game, and you found another way to do that that worked for everyone." "Yes!" he beamed.

Along with all the usual gear, I'm making sure to take our giraffe puppet with us to Hawaii when we go on vacation in November.

© 2004 by Inbal Kashtan. This article first appeared in Paths of Learning Magazine, January 2004. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Inbal Kashtan, Parenting Project coordinator for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, teaches and writes about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and lives with her family in Oakland, California. She is the author of the booklet "Parenting from Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice."

Inbal's audiobook, "Connected Parenting: Nonviolent Communication in Family Life" is available from Bay Area Nonviolent Communication.

For more information on NVC, see Marshall Rosenberg's Articles.