Affirm: I Hear You and Will Answer

Question:  Are we available? Are we present? Are we actively listening? How does our partner know the answer to these questions?

If the first step in our interaction process is to establish joint attention and become the very present and highly skilled observer, the second step needs to be affirmation. Simply put, when our partner is speaking (in whatever voice they use), we respond by answering in that same voice.  By answering, we are offering affirmation that we have heard and are listening to what they have to share with us. This acknowledgment helps provide a sense of self, a sense of value and a place in the world.  It lets us, as humans,  know that what we say matters and is important to others.   

We offer the word affirm because it doesn’t denote judgment. “Affirm” simply says; “I hear you and I am listening”. As we are affirming, we are not necessarily trying to interpret the meaning of the message. Instead, we are letting our partner know that we are available for discovery and further dialogue. We are signaling that we are available to enter into the back and forth, serve and return, of a rich conversation. 

As this video begins we see the student, Devondrick, and his teacher, Johanna, at his calendar. Johanna’s plan had been to discuss making hot chocolate. However, Devondrick has a topic he wants to share, namely popping cheeks. Johanna sets aside her agenda and affirms the Devondrick’s interest in popping each other’s cheeks; she follows his lead, rather than immediately pursuing the scheduled activity.  Being the expert observer, Johanna notices that Devondrick has a topic that he wants to discuss. She follows his lead without trying to immediately interpret if it is a question, request, or comment. By allowing the conversation to go where it might, a rich discussion happens with a lot of joy and emotion.  

This short clip might be thought of as a “lead-in” to the larger conversation/topic/agenda item of making hot chocolate. Lead-ins are a common and natural part of how we humans interact. They are part of our greeting ritual. A conversation partner is more apt to be interested in our topic if we have first shown interest and focused on their topic.  For example, if your topic is football and mine is cooking, you will be more interested in hearing me tell you about my latest favorite recipe if you’ve told me about yesterday’s football game first.  This is just one of our social rituals that help us bond and establish trust.

Devondrick and Johanna

Devondrick and Johanna do make hot chocolate eventually (teacher’s agenda), but because Johanna noticed and affirmed Devondrick’s interest in cheek popping, he happily joined her in her topic. 

Johanna Borge and Devondrick –  “hot chocolate and popping cheeks” 


The Still Face Experiment

Using  the “Still Face” Experiment, in which a mother denies her baby attention for a short period of time, Prof. Edward Tronick from UMass Boston describes how a prolonged lack of attention can move an infant from good socialization, to periods of bad, but repairable socialization. In “ugly” situations the child does not receive any chance to return to the good, and may become stuck.  

We see what happens when the mother is instructed not to affirm her baby’s attempts at communication.  If we’re not fully present and being the excellent observer, we might wonder if we are not noticing our partners attempts to communicate. 

Dr. Jan van Dijk Discusses “It”

Description: From 2021 Texas Symposium on Deafblind Education. Chris Montgomery introduces a clip of Dr. Jan Van Dijk describing “it.”

Professionals sometimes look for a recipe to guide them in their interactions with a child who is deafblind. There are specific strategies that you can use, but some of what is required is the magical “IT” that Dr. van Dijk would sometimes mention. This is a very human, intuitive process that has to do with making an emotional connections to the child and to let the child make an emotional connection to us.

The Biology of “It”

A core philosophy of Dr. Jan van Dijk was based on the importance of following the child’s lead; observing and then affirming their interests and emotions. He often talked about the importance of resonance, and being present in the moment with the child as you create moments of joy… together. These ideas have a central theme of affirmation and mutual respect.  In the following video segment you will see two brief clips of Dr. van Dijk talking about what it means to be emotionally present, affirming, and connected with your child.  

Want to learn more?  Take a deeper dive!

A young deafblind boy tactilely explores a life-size plastic cow at the ice cream shop.
A young boy explores a life-size fiberglass cow while visiting the ice cream shop.