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Many, Many Plates

I’m slowly teaching my husband the skill of reflective listening. The essence of this skill is to take a guess about what someone means and offer it in the form of a statement. It’s a way to demonstrate accurate empathy, stepping outside your own perspective to appreciate someone else’s.

Yesterday, my husband came home from work and said he had tried to use this skill. A patient was telling him about all she had going on – things with work, family troubles, health issues, financial struggles – and my husband tried his best to listen and understand what she might be experiencing. He meant to say, “You have a lot on your plate,” but what came out was, “You have a lot of plates.”

Implying many, many plates.  

“What did the person say?” I asked with curiosity.

“That’s what’s so interesting,” he said. “I was feeling so ridiculous for saying it that way – it just came out wrong – but the patient just kept going. Running with the idea, even.” 

He told me the patient paused for a moment, then replied, “Yes! That’s exactly it. I do have a lot of plates. Some of them feel strong and resilient. The kind you could drop on a hard floor and they would still look as good as new. Things can happen at work and I just fix it and move on. Other plates, like things with my family, feel flimsy like paper, and the minute something lands on them, they slowly start to fall apart and affect me so deeply.” She went on, describing the many plates. Loving this analogy. Feeling heard and understood.

Sometimes by simply offering a few words – even if they aren’t the perfect words – we can keep from derailing people from their natural flow of experience. These few words keep a conversation going, shining a spotlight on the many, many plates of other people’s lives and giving them space to explore and more clearly understand their own experience.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.