Decoding – The Key to Connecting

Decoding is a critical first step to respectfully connecting with a person who is experiencing negative emotions and expressing those emotions in sometimes harmful or self-harming behaviors.  Three critical steps to decoding someone’s behavior are:

  1. To observe the behavior,
  2. To ask what the person might be feeling, and
  3. To acknowledge their feeling.

A recent example of decoding I used was with a young man I’d not met before whom I was asked to interview.  I introduced myself and asked him if he would mind if I spoke with him.  He sat in the chair, crossed his arms and had a scowl on his face (not a happy camper).

  • My decoding went like this:
    1.  Observe: Tommy, I noticed you have your arms crossed and your jaws clenched,
    2.  Ask: Are you angry? He responded with a yes.
    (If he would have said no, I simply would have asked; What are you feeling?)
    3.  Acknowledge: I can see you’re angry. (An empathic response that provides connection)

I then asked him what caused him to be angry and he said was angry because he was supposed to be at another activity he was looking forward to. We then went on and had a wonderful exchange for about 45 minutes.
I firmly believe that due to this respectful interaction where I observed his behavior, asked about his feeling and acknowledged it, I’d made it through what could have been many layers of resistance.
The crucial part of any conversation is how it begins – Decoding is the key to looking beyond the surface behavior and making that critical connection with the person in distress.

*This decoding process: Observe, Ask, & Acknowledge is the first phase in Satori Alternatives to Managing Aggression designed by Larry Hampton of


Seems like there is always something to learn when traveling…

Measuring Success by Statistics and Smiles:

The week of March 16th I attended the 7th annual conference of the European Federation of Conflict Management and Treatment in Education and Care (EFeCT) in Budapest, Hungary.  I’ll write more about that organization and conference in a subsequent entry.  Now I want to focus on the program visit experiences of the two pre-conference days in the Hungarian cities of Győr and Salgótarján.

Győr is a city in the western part of Hungary, sitting about halfway between Budapest and Vienna, Austria.  We visited a school there, Kossuth Lajos Elementary School, that served young people who could not function well in regular community schools.  Most of the students were from the Roma community in the city.  The school is poorly funded.   In 2010 our colleagues from Pressley Ridge Hungary became involved in a training and consulting capacity and, according to statistics in four key areas, since then student performance has improved.  The four areas measured are school attendance, academic performance, serious discipline meetings, and continuation in school.

In the period between 2008 and 2010, prior to the involvement of Pressley Ridge Hungary, the trends in school attendance, academic progress, and continuation in school were downward and the number of serious discipline meetings increased.  From 2010 to the present school year the trends have reversed.  Attendance in school has increased steadily, academic progress is now close to grade level, serious discipline meetings not only decreased but also substantially changed, and more students finish elementary school and enter high school.

The school attributes these positive changes to the involvement of Pressley Ridge Hungary staff and a consistent application of positive, strength-based approaches that emphasize Re-ED principles, group process, restorative approaches, and trusting relationships.  The students affirmed what the statistics indicate.  Their school is a safe place of learning and positive relationships.

Salgótarján is a city in the eastern part of Hungary, very near the border of Slovakia.  Not unlike what happened near my home, Pittsburgh, in the 1980’s Salgótarján has seen the loss of steel making, coal mining and glass making industries and a corresponding loss of twenty-five percent of its population.  Our group met with two of the city’s deputy mayors who told us about the challenges and their plans to breathe life back in to that old, once proud, community.

In this depressed city we visited a residential program for young people, Salgótarján Elementary School and Children’s Home.  Nearly fifty young people of elementary school age live in a co-ed program in a building that was constructed in 1925.  At some point in its history it was a casino still bears the engraved inscription of the miners’ greeting above the front door, Jó szerencsét! (Good Luck!).

The good luck for the young people living there is undoubtedly embodied in the caring staff who work with them day and night.  At the time of our visit there were forty-seven boys and girls living in the program with a total staff of nine people, including the administrator and two overnight staff.  Two staff were absent due to illness while we were there and calling for back-up support is not an option.

The program in this setting has also been enhanced with training and consultation from Pressley Ridge Hungary in much the same way as in the school program in Győr, several hours away.  We were invited to join in the daily planning meetings of the young children and the older children and our group divided among them.  With translation support, we listened as each student proudly stated their personal goal.  Goals about expressing themselves appropriately, improving cooperation, and helping others are very similar to those we hear from students in programs in the United States.

The contrast between a broken old building that has had no renovation in decades and the positive, hopeful spirit of young people, many of whom have lived in that five day per week program for years could not be more pronounced.  I have seen residential programs in many parts of the world and I have never seen a program do more with less material resources anywhere.  One resource they have in abundance is human spirit.

My experience in these two Hungarian cities, inspired by our colleagues from Pressley Ridge Hungary, brings to mind a quote by American writer William Bruce Cameron:

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.


Two Faces?


We have found that the use of illusions are often helpful to illustrate various complex ideas about how the brain functions.

Look at the picture.  What happens?

This is a picture of half of a human face.  Your brain quickly reacts to this incomplete pattern by turning the face sideways – which, to it, makes more sense.  To continue looking at the half face photo would mean the brain is not allowed to do its work of completing the pattern.  Sometimes the brain is so anxious to make sense of the world around it, it will add or subtract information in order to satisfy this desire to predict thereby – better ensuring its continued existence. 

Because our brain’s primary directive is to keep us alive, many of its functions underscore this drive.  In order to stay alive, it is helpful to be able to anticipate what is going to happen next.  Our brains are constantly and continuously trying to predict what will happen, next words, next actions, in an attempt to be prepared in a response.  A extension of this is the need to complete patterns. 




Consequences – Part 2: Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are outcomes that happen as a result of behavior that are not planned or controlled by others.  For example, if a young person is mean to others he may find that he is not invited to join in when others get together.  An adult did not plan or control this consequence, but he or she may observe it and choose to allow it to happen.  That adult then may be able to discuss what happened with the young person who was left out and help him or her learn predict such natural consequences in future interactions.  Use of natural consequences allows an attentive adult to teach young people the connection between their choices and what happens to them.

Consequences – Part 2: Natural Consequences

On the Road with Cal Farley’s International Consultant

Seems like there is always something to learn when traveling…

Judgment Calls & Compromise:

Flying through Amsterdam Airport Schiphol yesterday my wife, Marty, and I watched a scene unfold at a gate security area the likes of which I have never observed in a thousand flights anywhere in the world. A passenger casually waited as his carry-on bag went through the x-ray machine. As an agent was called to inspect the bag the passenger stood calmly, showing no sign that he expected anything to be wrong.

Standing together at the end of the security conveyer, the agent proceeded to open the bag, remove some clothes, and expose a food processor. Yes, a standard sized food processor. The agent removed the food processor and disassembled it, soon to expose the double-edged blade, which is common to such devices. While we could not hear their conversation in whatever language it was spoken, the non-verbal communication was very clear. The agent looked at the double blade, made a look of consternation, and slowly shook his head at the passenger. The passenger, in turn, looked back at the agent with a look that said, “but sir, I must have my food processor.” Back and forth they went with head shakes and plaintive looks.

On the same flight as the man with the food processor, we were very pleased with the diligence and standard of safety shown by the agent. Then we looked on in shock as the passenger was smiling and he and the agent were head nodding in the affirmative, reassembled the food processor, and closed the bag.

As it turned out a compromise was reached and the bag was checked and would travel in the luggage hold to be retrieved at the passenger’s final destination. We felt safe again and were pleased to see that a satisfactory agreement was in place. We soon saw another gate agent take the newly checked bag out of the jetway to be handed off to the baggage handlers. As she set the bag on the outside stairs and watched it tumble down a dozen steps to the landing, she grimaced as she went down after it only to set it upright on the spot where it landed. We noticed that the passenger had not noticed his tumbling food processor filled bag and stood in line satisfied that his needs had been met. The original gate agent went back to his work keeping the skies safe for the rest of us.

While we won’t get to see how the food processor survived the stairway tumble or the baggage tossing which may have followed, we know that there was at least one casualty in this episode. The gate agent who had to take the bag outside for checking came striding back in to the gate area with a pained look on her face and holding her pinky finger at the nail.

Consequences – Part 1: Consequences Happen – Tascosa Project

Behavioral principles have been prominent for forty years in programs for youth. Parenting programs also include healthy doses of behavioral intervention strategies. There is great value in understanding the uses of behavioral approaches in our work – at the same time, there are significant limitations. One drawback of the infusion of behavioral initiative in our work is the perceiving meaning of the word “consequence” itself. You won’t find “punishment” as a synonym for “consequence” in Thesaurus. Yet, they have become synonymous in our work and that has been detrimental to our understanding of the purpose and power of what consequences are and how consequences can be used as vehicles to help us as professionals achieve the meaningful learning, growth and change in behavior of our youth in our care.

This is the first of a three-part series on using “consequences” in our work. These brief presentations are intended to provide a starting point for learning, dialogue and training on an important and pervasive topic throughout services and professional disciplines.

Consequences – Part 1: Consequences Happen

Really? Only 10% of your brain?

It is unfortunate that people still claim that we only use 10% of our brain.  However, it is likely that the claim will persist as the 2014 movie LUCY has Morgan Freeman reinforcing the claim.  While it may be true that some people only reach a small fraction of their potential, it only confuses the understanding of the brain to claim we only use 10%.  This entertaining video (4min) does a nice job of challenging the claim.

Do I Only Use 10% of My Brain?

The Divided Brain 2.0

Misinformation regarding the brain is in no short supply.  The most common misinformation is likely regarding the hemispheres of the brain.  This stems from the popularity of the topic in the 70’s and 80’s driven by the first split brain operations.  In this RSA animation, Iain McGilchrist revisits the divided brain with newer insight debunking the most commonly heard myths.  However, what he brings to the table is a new understanding that may prove more interesting than what is most frequently presented.

RSA Animate – The Divided Brain

A Pep Talk from Kid President

This  video was shown at the closing of the 2014 Allambi Ignite Conference held in New South Wales, Australia.  It was a nice element to include in the closing of an excellent conference.  You just can’t have too much Kid President!

A Pep Talk from Kid President to You



For the Heroes

This video was shared by Simon Walsh at the opening of the 2014 Ignite Conference in New South Wales.  It was the beginning of an excellent conference.  Indeed, it will be sad when Kid President grows up.

For the Heroes: A Pep Talk From Kid President