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Online Communication

Norma Escobar
Wilmington, North Carolina, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 36 No. 6, December 2000-January 2001, pp. 121-22

We are living in the "information era." In the USA, over half the homes are now connected to the Internet and more than half of the users of this new medium are women (Nielsen Net Ratings, July 2000). This information frenzy is expanding worldwide. The World Wide Web has opened up a myriad of opportunities and challenges for people all around the world. This includes La Leche League Leaders. Things like email and formal and informal mailing lists have revolutionized the way that many Leaders do the business of leading day to day.

The information age has also added a new dimension to how many Leaders help mothers. Leaders may receive online help forms from mothers who send in questions to LLLI's Web site; email contact from a mother who saw the Group's meeting notice on the Web; or contact through chat rooms that have La Leche League hosts. The fact is that more and more Leaders are helping mothers via electronic communications every day and online communication is here to stay. At a recent workshop about human communication and the nature of all human interactions, the speaker talked about five levels of communication:

  1. cliche ("Hi, how are you?" "Fine")
  2. facts ("Most breastfed babies nurse 10-12 times per 24 hours")
  3. opinions ("My babies always nursed at least that much" - implying yours should, too)
  4. feelings ("I feel tied down by the baby's unexpected demands")
  5. needs ("I need at least 15 minutes per day to myself")

Most experienced Leaders are good at getting past the first few levels of communication and getting to the mother's true needs when dealing with a phone call or a meeting situation. How can Leaders keep that same warm and accepting dialogue that gets to the core of issues, during online interaction? Especially when the nature of lightning speed communication seems to demand that an instant answer should be one click away.

Things like reflective listening, empathy, respect, and the ability to be genuine become even more important when you don't have the visual cues of body language and facial expression or the auditory cue of voice tone. Examine the following excerpt from a chat room as an example:

Mother: I am going to try to breastfeed my baby, but did anyone else feel weird about it?

Leader: Sure, some mothers find the idea of a baby sucking at the breast weird, but you'll get over it once it is your own baby.

Mother: I just don't know if I can do it.

Leader: Sure you can, you'll feel differently once you hold your baby.

In this dialogue the mother will probably go away feeling unheard. She may or may not give breastfeeding a try. Take a look at this second dialogue:

Mother: I am going to try to breastfeed my baby, but did anyone else feel weird about it?

Leader: You sound uncomfortable with the idea of being involved with your baby in such an intimate way.

Mother: Yes, I guess that's part of it, but it's stronger than that - I don't know, maybe I'm just strange.

Leader: Having these feelings makes you wonder if you 're the only one out there who is ambivalent about this breastfeeding business. Can I offer you some information?

Mother: Yes, please! l feel like l shouldn't be having these feelings at all!

Leader: Some mothers do have trouble picturing themselves with a baby at their breasts, some feel awkward, others downright disgusted at the thought.

Mother: Yes, that is exactly what I'm going through - I'd hate for my baby to feel like I reject her! But I know that breastfeeding is best.

Leader: It has been shown that with a little practice, most mothers find that their negative feelings toward breastfeeding change and they are better able to cope and even learn to enjoy breastfeeding! And their babies benefit from their efforts.

Mother: I guess l should at least give it a good try and see what happens.

Leader: Sounds like a great plan! You might want to consider giving you and your baby 4-6 weeks to get used to breastfeeding before you decide if this is for you or not.

In this example, we see how the Leader was able to use reflective listening and offer information in a way that conveyed respect and acceptance. Even when the Leader didn't "get it" at first, the mother kept giving clues until the Leader was able to really understand what this mother was experiencing. This was a clarifying experience for the mother, too. This mother found her own answer and also went away with the information she needed (that she was not the first mother to feel ambivalent at the thought of breastfeeding) as well as the knowledge that it may take 4-6 weeks to become a more experienced nursing mother.

Another helpful skill to have and use in your communication on-line is how to ask open-ended questions. In conjunction with empathy, it can be a powerful tool to get to the real issue and meet a mother's needs. See what a difference this can make:

Mother: My baby is not getting enough milk. Can you tell me what I can do to increase my supply?

Leader: How old is your baby?

Mother: Two weeks

Leader: How much did he weigh at birth?

Mother: Seven pounds, four ounces.

Leader: How much does be weigh now?

Mother: I don't know, our appointment is tomorrow.

Leader: How many wet diapers is he having per 24 hours?

Mother: Well, I think he's having enough, at least five or six.

Leader: Is he nursing regularly?

Mother: Yes, he nurses a lot, at least every three hours, sometimes more - is that bad?

If you put yourself in this mother's shoes you'll see that she may think that she's being interrogated and put on the spot.

Compare it with this:

Mother: My baby is not getting enough milk, can you tell me what I can do to increase my supply?

Leader: Wow, being worried about not being able to meet your child's needs can be such a strain on a new mother, can you tell me more about your baby's nursing pattern?

Mother: I am very worried. He does not seem to be gaining much weight, yet he seems to nurse so frequently! At least he sleeps good at night though. But during the day, its non-stop feeding. At least every three hours, if not more often!

Leader: You sound overwhelmed by your baby's needs yet relieved that he's sleeping. The pattern you describe during the day seems pretty normal. Tell me more about his nighttime patterns.

Mother: Oh, he's such a good baby. From the day we got him home from the hospital he's slept seven hours straight every night. We're the envy of the family!

Leader: Even though your family is pleased, you are still worried that the baby might not be growing properly. Have you considered that maybe your baby needs to eat once or twice at night in order to grow a little faster?

Mother: Well, I guess I had not thought about it, I was just counting my blessings!

Leader: You sound surprised to hear me suggest this, you are very content with the way things are at night!

Mother: Well, if it would help him gain faster, I could try to feed him at night, I guess.

In this example the Leader allowed the mother to direct the conversation, while gently drawing out the information that was key to this issue by using questions that needed more than a one-word answer. Combined with empathy, open-ended questions are a very effective way to discover the mother's true needs. This approach takes a little more time and it also takes really "listening" until we get it right. However, the advantage is that we are more likely to truly meet the needs of the mothers who come to us for help when we respond in this way.

Tips To Increase the Effectiveness of Your Online Communication

  1. Remember to use empathy. What is the mother experiencing? Get into her shoes.
  2. Don't be afraid to identify feelings and the reasons for the feelings even if it takes you a little longer. You'll help the mother get to her true need that way. This is the key to reflective listening.
  3. If you don't get it right, keep trying. The mother will correct you if you're off track. This is true for both the immediate chat session setting and the slower help-form situation.
  4. Remember to use open questions to get the mother "talking" about her situation. You can learn a lot about the situation in a relatively short amount of time.
  5. Once you identify what the true concern is, offer information in a way that can be accepted or rejected. This shows respect for the individual.
  6. Phrases such as:
    Many mothers find...
    Have you considered..?
    What would happen if..?
  7. Consider taking (or retaking) HRE sessions at your Area/International Conference, or inviting an instructor to present a series in your town. Complete the HRE workbook available through LLLI.

[Editor's note: for more information on electronic leading, see "Online La Leche League Meetings." by Anne Patrick which appeared in the June-July 2000 issue of LEAVEN]

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