Holley in San Diego Woman magazine


By Brian Wiersema

Communications expert and Encinitas resident Holley Humphrey doesn’t bat an eye when she mentions she teaches the language of “Giraffe.” “Giraffe” is Humphrey’s lingo for clear communication. She calls it the language of empathy, a system for setting straight the fragments, danglers and run-ons in our personal and work relationships. It’s a form of communication that uses puppets, props, and role-playing situations to do everything from problem solving to discovering inner strength. Participants have included international students, business professionals, elementary school teachers, and children.

The system takes its name from the animal, a handy symbol for sticking one’s neck out and “taking the risk to truly connect with ourselves and others”–that’s Humphrey’s theme.

Consultant Humphrey, who calls her business Empathic Communication, demonstrates with puppets. One is a giraffe. The other is a jackal. The jackal, in anger and blame, lashes out: “You’re a stupid jerk.” The giraffe doesn’t take it personally, and responds by guessing with understanding, “Are you feeling angry? I bet you wish you could have it your way.” Without using “loaded” words, the giraffe opens up to the jackal, defusing the verbal intensity and expressing a willingness to listen. The giraffe accepts the jackal.

“When one person hangs in there and shares a sense of well-being with another, good things happen,” says Humphrey. “Confrontation is turned inside out. Rather than a clash, there’s a connection. The problem is, true listening communication can be a tough stretch. While “Giraffe” is simple, it’s not easy. We all have years of speaking Jackal to undo.”

To make her point, Humphrey removes the jackal puppet and uncovers a hidden giraffe puppet underneath. “This helps people of all ages clearly see how a jackal can melt into a giraffe when sufficiently heard,” Humphrey says. “There really are no jackals. Just illiterate giraffes.”

For visiting Soviet, Swedish, and American high school Peace Quest students on an intense six-week inter-country tour, Humphrey shared her “Giraffe” tools “to keep communications current so that personal frictions wouldn’t build up.”

Giraffe language, says Humphrey, shows how to not take name calling or negativity or others’ irritation personally. “It teaches people to find the ‘cry for help’ behind the angry voice,” she says, adding that in business, “Giraffe” is a way of refueling people who are running on empty.

Her supporters say it works wonders. “Humphrey makes a difference in building morale and teamwork and in reducing stress and anger across the board–from top management to union members,” says Linda Ristow, information services manager with the City of Irvine. Humphrey, on contract with Irvine since 1989, teaches by example, says Ristow. “She shows the powerful impact of empathy. Coworkers experience being less critical and more communicative. They become willing to see how their performance affects others down the line. Humphrey inspires people to be more open with each other. And they love it.”

Michael Hetz. a partner in Stefanko and Hetz Advertising and Design, says Humphrey turned around a chronic communications conflict that threatened to send production sideways. “Based upon my wife’s experience in Holley’s ‘Especially For Women’ class, I insisted that we bring Holley in as a conflict resolver,” says Hetz. “She brought people together so that they could hear one another and gave us the tools to prevent future blowups. She was the best decision we could have made.”

Humphrey, a University of Denver graduate, once taught elementary school in Denver. San Diego, and Imperial Beach. Her additional training includes a degree in computer science and communication- model studies with Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist, in the United States and Switzerland. ! Rosenberg, founder and director of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, has been developing the affectionately named Giraffe Language over the last 28 years. • Then, with 10 years’ experience in data processing management and computer consulting, Humphrey put it all together. The Rosenberg years overlapped with the business experience.

Humphrey knows what businesses are coping with. “I watched many types of companies deal with similar back-office politics,” Humphrey says. “I observed self- serving communication styles and territorial communication struggles. When I saw the chance to offer effective alternatives, I took it. There were ways that I had been studying, of bringing about not just better communication but also joy to the workplace. I had to follow my dream.”

Who’s speaking Giraffe

Humphrey’s clients currently include companies, school districts, and individuals. “Holley Humphrey’s in-service session skills are exemplary,” says Bird Rock Elementary School principal Sandra Harding. “She encourages participants to risk change.” “She instills a willingness to cooperate for mutual benefit,” says San Diego City Schools district counselor Rebecca Speer. “She heals the ‘unhealable’ wounds created by poor communication.”

“The shouting in our house is over,” says one parent.

“She helped me to become a vastly more effective parent,” said Kathleen Olsen of Del Mar. “The shouting in our house is over.”

Breadth of experience sets Humphrey apart. Having raised a family of two stepdaughters from the ages of 3 and 5, and a hearing- impaired stepson from the age of 7, this teacher-turned-businesswoman has “been there” on the front lines of parental challenge and frustration. Additionally, she cared for a foster daughter who came into her family via juvenile hall. A grandmother by her youngest stepdaughter, Humphrey is working with the next generation.

She seems to have remarkable range. She was a speaker on building teamwork recently at the American Society for Training and Development’s (ASTD) regional conference in San Diego. And she presented a workshop on self-nurturing at the Families Anonymous Western State Conference.

Her puppets are accepted at both schools and businesses. “In the schools, puppets are a must,” she says. “But every once in awhile, I hear the advice that I shouldn’t take puppets to businesses. I was about to succumb to it one evening when I was starting a five-week training program with an industrial medicine group in National City. As I was unloading my materials, the doctor who had hired me came by and said cheerily, ‘We’re going to have fun tonight, aren’t we?’ That’s all I needed. You bet we are.” I said, and scooped up my jackals and giraffes.”

Humphrey says the secret is that discovering what we want is empowering. After that the next step is letting people know what our wants are. “The tragedy is that nowhere are we taught how to clearly ask for what we need in such a way that people will joyfully give it to us. I teach people how to ask.”

In 1991, Humphrey is putting plans in place to offer Empathic Communication at the college level in California and Arizona. Locally, she’ll offer a training program to principals and guidance personnel at the Solana Beach School District as well as her usual program of ongoing classes, speaking engagements, private coaching, and on-site business training.

“I like to watch people open their minds and hearts to new possibilities in relationships,” she says. “I enjoy showing people simple tools, such as paying attention to whose needs are on the table, and hearing what they do with them to make a happier world for themselves. Light bulbs go on. I like turning people on to new ways to come together and celebrate differences. Most of all, I savor the stories people tell me about reconnecting with someone they’ve had trouble with. I get messages on my machine after a workshop, such as, T called my mother in New York. We just spent two hours crying and laughing together. It was the first time in six years that we didn’t end up screaming at each other. The empathy I got in the group lifted enough of my pain so that I could begin to imagine and connect with hers. Thank you so much. You’ve given my mother back to me.’

“I feel blessed,” Humphrey says. “I’m deeply grateful. There’s nothing in this whole world that I’d rather be doing than playing ‘Giraffe’ with people who want to grow and connect. My soul sings in ‘Giraffe.’ It’s my joy.”