Dr Who actor Peter Capaldi’s heartwarming video message to a child with autism who had lost his grandmother has been all over the internet this week, and rightly so. If you’ve not heard about it, here’s a report from The Guardian which is representative of the many that appeared in the English-speaking press.
Thomas, who is an avid Doctor Who fan and particularly liked the 11th Doctor, played by Matt Smith, wrote to Capaldi in early October wishing him luck in his new role.
Capaldi responded by letter soon after, thanking him and wrote a separate note to his father with advice on how to arrange a tour of the set and promising to send a video message to Thomas.
That message arrived by email three weeks after the family’s subsequent bereavement. “I am assuming Peter Capaldi knew Thomas had lost his nan but the timing was just pot-luck,” (his father) Ross Goodall said.
“It was the first time he had smiled since his nan passed away. The only communication we had got until then was when he got upset and got angry.”
Here’s the video, which Capaldi recorded in character as The Doctor. If you’re any sort of Who fan, it’s essential viewing – if you have tears, prepare to shed them now:
This is great, of course. Thomas’ dad credits the message with helping his son recover from the bereavement:
“Thomas only sees black and white – there is no grey area – and he has taken it to mean that you can be happy, even though sad things happen.
“That was when he decided that he wanted to go to the funeral. Up until then, he didn’t want anything to do with it but he was even comforting his sister. He was a different child. Normally, anything out of his comfort zone comes with consequences,” he told the Guardian.
I believe that one reason it works so well is because the words Capaldi uses are perfectly chosen to get the boy to feel more resourceful about what’s happened. With my NLP hat on, I’ve had a go at analysing the language patterns in the video:
|The Doctor's Words||Analysis|
|“Thank you very much for your letter. I really enjoyed getting it.||What you do can make a difference to how other people feel.|
|“Because you see, when Clara and I are travelling around in time and space, sometimes bad things happen to us.||We have something in common with you, we also sometimes experience bad things. "Things' plural implies that what has happened is a normal event, not an exceptional life-wrecking tragedy.|
|“And you know what, Thomas? Sometimes sad things happen to us too.||Use of his name says ‘this message is especially just for you’ - it’s not like a TV broadcast that goes out to lots of other people as well.
“When he said ‘sometimes sad things happen’, it was as though he was mentioning it (the bereavement) without mentioning it,” said his father Ross Goodall.
Saying ‘sad things happen to us too’ references the bereavement (which is part of the class of sad events) but in an unspecified way, without addressing it directly, giving Thomas some choice about how much he wants to think about it right now. Saying “I’m sorry you lost your nan” would force him to think about it, which might be too painful so close to the event.
Also, saying that they happen to us is what’s called in NLP ‘switching referential index’ - because the events that we are talking about happen to us rather than you, it gives Thomas some distance.
|"So, it’s nice to know that there’s somebody like you out there who’s on our side.||This, I think, is really inspired. It puts Thomas in a position of agency. The Doctor is glad that you’re on his side! Again, what you do, what you intend, what you feel, makes a difference to other people.|
|"And you should know that we’re on your side too.||You should indeed. You’ve already realised it from the previous sentence - if you’re on the Doctor’s side, it means he’s on yours. For me it evoked a mental image of the Doctor and Clara standing next to the boy, facing the situation with him. As a Who fan, Thomas would know that the Doctor has stood this way with humankind (and individual humans) times without number.|
|“So you look after yourself, and take care, and be happy.”||This sentence is empowering in itself if you read between the lines. “Look after yourself” presupposes that he has the ability to look after himself, and “take care” works the same way.|
So not only is Peter Capaldi turning out to be a great twelfth Doctor, he also knows exactly the right thing to say in a delicate situation. Hats off to him.
Have I missed anything? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
If you want to discover more about NLP language patterns, download my Kindle e-book Practical NLP 2: Language, which tells you all about chunking, presuppositions, the Meta Model for effective questioning, and the Milton Model for conversational hypnotic suggestion, and something about metaphor too.
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One other thing that it put me in mind of was Kristin Neff’s model of self-compassion. From her perspective the elements of self-compassion are mindfulness (feeling the feelings with out indulgence or avoidance), common humanity (being aware that it’s not just not me that’s suffering) and kindness to oneself (rather than being self-critical).
It seems to me that Peter Capaldi’s message models that when: he says bad & sad things happen (invitation to tune into the distress), Clara and I (this happens to other people as well), and finally and invitation to be kind to himself.
I’ve no idea what prompted Peter Capaldi to do what he did and say what he said, but it was brilliant.
Thanks Andy – as I sometimes tell my readers, the insightful comments on my blog are one of the main reasons to read it!
I wasn’t previously aware of Kristin Neff’s model but will definitely check it out, especially as it seems relevant to emotional intelligence. And immediately I’m wondering if her model makes the distinction of how much you tune into the distress, as tuning in too much would be overwhelming (possibly ‘indulgence’?) One of the things that I love about NLP is that it opens choices about how closely you approach a feeling.
This mindfulness aspect also reminds me of Ernest Rossi in ‘The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing’ saying that you have to access a problem at least a bit in order to be able to resolve it.
Great analysis. Looking at it through the lens of meta-states, it takes us on a nice little walk down the slope, through the valley, and on up the next mountain.
Some of my analysis in terms of how snippets/paraphrases of the Doctor’s words may likely be experienced by the listener:
“Thank you” -> gratitude
“enjoyed getting it” -> joy / enjoyment
“bad things” -> anger / fear / shame
“sad things” -> sadness / grief
“nice to know” -> appreciated
~you’re on our side~ -> agency / empowerment / ability
“on your side too” -> protected / appreciated
“look after yourself” -> confidence / agency
“be happy” -> happiness.
Following the stacking of those states gives us a strategy as well as an interesting gestalt meta-state. Most of us can identify with the beginning about enjoying life and then *bam* something bad/sad happens.
The wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey bit is then applying the feeling of being appreciated to that bad/sad state. And that sense of agency and alignment with Clara and the Doctor applied to that appreciated-bad/sad state. And the idea of being protected applied to that agentic-appreciated-bad/sad state. And confidence in your ability to look after yourself applied to that protected-agentic-appreciated-bad/sad state.
And the cherry on top (that also brings us back around nearly full circle), happiness applied to the confident-protected-agentic-appreciated-bad/sad-enjoyment state. The meta-state from those states stacked like that give an overall happy feeling of confidence and ability with the strategy embedded in there regarding how you might create a similar meta-state next time you’re enjoying life and a bad/sad thing happens.
I’m beginning to wonder, after incidents like this and some of Matt Smith’s interactions with very young fans, if one of the prerequisites for playing the Doctor is having an extra large heart as a proxy for a second one.
(Just don’t let me start ranting about the way Moffat seems to have mangled the end of this last season. Unless he’s got some real surprises up his sleeve, it’ll take all my state control to even feel satisfied with that last episode…)
Thanks Wayne – like I said in the previous comment, the insightful comments from readers of this blog are one of the main reasons to read it!
I’m not very well up on the Meta-States model, so thanks for these insights.