A conversation--with your consent--about consent

A friend posted an article about Cuddle Party which got me thinking about consent in its many forms. The article explores the author's experience at a Cuddle Party and is a reflection of my experience at Cuddle Party in general. How do I know about Cuddle Party? I was in the initial beta-test of their facilitator training in 2005 and if they have been consistent--and it seems that they have--over the last more than a decade then they provide the opportunity for a great conversation and experience regarding consent and touch and consent in general. In the article and at the event, one thing that the discussion stresses that I particularly value is this: "Say 'yes' if you are a yes, say 'no' if you are a no, and, if you are a maybe, say 'no' and you can always change your answer later."

I believe that consent around touch should start at a young age and I started when my children were toddlers. Rather than just hug them, I started asking them, "would you like a hug?" They got to say "yes" or "no" and they got to change their minds. While not always perfect, I am mindful of hugging and kissing (and tickling and wrestling and other activities that involve touch) with their consent. While I don't expect them to do the same in return yet, I hope that my modeling of consent will leave a lasting impression. When I hear parents say, "it's my child, I can do what I want" or "oh, they know that it is OK" I tend to cringe with concern that they may be creating the basis for accepting unwanted touch. Mind you, my children and I still have fun, we hug, kiss, tickle, wrestle, and in general have positive touch though with the modeling of consent. Can consent be overdone? I honestly don't think so. There may be a situation where someone indicates a blanket consent, for example, "at this play party, you can touch me any time you want." For my part, I would prefer to err on the side of caution with consent and I know that I have failed at times.

Beyond consent for touch, what is really on my mind today is consent for conversation. It is something that I believe we talk about less because the need to consent for conversation may be less obvious. Have you heard someone say, "Ugh, he just dumped on me!" or "She just vomited all her troubles on me!" or "They just could not stop talking when I told them I was done with the conversation, it was like they had verbal diarrhea!" Dumping on, vomiting, and diarrhea are not desirable things. The latter two happen when the body is trying hard to get rid of something unpleasant, trying to take care of itself. And I think that is what may happen when someone does this to you. They just need to get something off their chest and they don't think about how it will be received. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be vomited on! These are strong metaphors for unwanted conversations. I don't believe that most people want to do these things consciously, they often just happen.

That being said, it may be important to hear what the other person has to say. If there is consent, someone can say exactly the same things as they did in the situations above and have them heard by the other person. I find that this comes up a lot in my work and it is something that I have tried to practice in my life. Some communication breakdowns happen because one person is not willing or not able to hear what the other person has to say. Sometimes this is deliberate, in the case of stonewalling or some kinds of avoidance, and sometimes it is unconscious, in some cases of someone shutting down at the mention of a challenging topic or in the midst of a conversation. When there is something significant to discuss, I try and I recommend that people try to get consent for the conversation. The classic example is "We need to talk!" with no further explanation given. For some people, this inspires dread and anxiety. This is not exactly what I mean. What is closer to what I mean is "Hey, there is something on my mind that I would like to talk to you about. When is a good time for you?" or "So, there is this thing that is hard for me to bring up, are you open to a conversation about it now?" What is different? First of all, in these two cases, the speaker indicates that they would like to talk and does not imply the desire or need for the other party to talk. Secondly, a little more information it given about wanting to talk. Lastly, the other party is invited to reply, and the other party can answer "yes" or "no"  and in either case they can ask--with consent--"Can I ask what this is about?"

There are no guarantees that this style of seeking consent will lead to a conversation. Even if this does not lead to a conversation, it can be considered successful communication in that a request was made and it was rejected, empowering both parties. So what happens if the answer is always "no?" That is what often ends up in my and other therapist's and counselor's offices. Sometimes people need someone neutral to be present in order to have the difficult conversations. Always hearing "no" is likely indicative of a larger issue that needs addressing.

This practice of consent can also help when people shut down at the mention of or during a conversation. It will likely take more effort though the end goal of determining when a person is both willing and able to hear what you have to say is the same. There may need to be some amount of individual work to be done for the person to be able to give consent to conversations with authenticity.  And this is not about eliminating discomfort, it is about facilitating conversation. As I wrote about earlier, some things are often going to be uncomfortable. This can be another tool to help manage the discomfort.

The last thing that I would like to highlight which also comes up in the article is making sure you have consent with yourself. Before granting external consent it is important to grant internal consent. "Am I agreeing because I believe I have to or am I really able to give consent?" Many people do things out of a sense of obligation or a desire not to hurt people's feelings or for a host of other reasons. This is something that can be learned over time and engaged in unconsciously. People do not even consider that they have a choice in certain situations. By highlighting this pause for internal consent, I hope that people can make these behaviors conscious and act in a more proactive rather than reactive manner.

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