7.1 F-A-X Listening Toolset
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F-A-X LISTENING TOOLSET
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7 F-A-X LISTENING TOOLSET
If the door to our house looks like a six-inch-thick steel bank vault, just its appearance will deter most people from coming in. Even those who might be welcome will get the message that no one is welcome. The ideal door is one that opens when we choose, but is sturdy enough to protect us when necessary. If we want to enter another person’s house, we don’t barge into their house. If we did, they’d feel unsafe and lock their doors. Instead, we knock on their door and let them know we are safe people to let in their house.
Similarly, if we feel threatened or have been hurt in the past, our emotional doors and walls are thicker and we are less likely to open them. If we want others to open their emotional doors to us, we don’t barge in by probing or telling them what they are feeling or what to do. This would only cause them to get defensive and build thicker walls. We ask permission to come in and show them it is safe to share their feelings and thoughts with us. When they open their emotional doors to us, even by a crack, we treat them respectfully. We do this even when we need to discuss a problem, so we can continue communicating.
IN THIS CHAPTER
This chapter explains the first step in F-A-X Listening, “Focus on feelings,” and teaches us four important tasks:
- Encourage others to share their feelings without accidentally shutting down communication lines.
- Understand the different problem-solving styles.
- Identify the real issues or feelings others are facing.
- Help others work through troubling or confusing feelings without taking over.
WHEN TO USE THIS TOOLSET
Use the listening tools when others are experiencing feelings, positive or negative. If we have a problem, we acknowledge others’ feelings or perspectives before we share ours. When children misbehave, these tools help us recognize and resolve the underlying feelings that are causing the behavior. In their book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, And Listen So Kids Will Talk, authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish say, “There is a direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave. When kids feel right, they’ll behave right. How do we help them feel right? By accepting their feelings.” In Siblings Without Rivalry they add, “The very emotions we want to close the door on and lock out, need to be invited in, made welcome, and treated with respect.”
Remember in Chapter 3, “The Universal Blueprint,” we learned that problem behavior and negative feelings are like onions. Young children are like pearl onions, which are small onions with few layers. Sometimes they react to small events. When we listen to their feelings and connect it with what happened, young children experience great relief and usually move on to something else. Many parents who are used to their children going on and on with their emotions are surprised at how quickly their young children stop fussing once their feelings are noticed and parents show they understand.
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Teens and adults are like white salad onions. They have more layers because they experience more complex problems and emotions and have more complicated personalities. Unless they feel safe and trusting (which we promote with these skills) they will not allow others to see their inner layers. Remember, privacy is very important to teens.
Troubled teens and adults are like Bermuda onions, which are the largest onions with many thick layers. These layers are from years of hurt feelings, bad experiences, and unhelpful communication habits. These layers are not all from the parent/child relationship. Any experience can add a layer to their defensive walls. Just as peeling onions causes us to cry, troubled teens and adults are more hesitant to relive their hurt feelings because of the pain stored inside. When parents of troubled teens use these listening skills, they don’t always see immediate changes in their teens’ behavior or a willingness to open up. Whenever we listen, however, layers are dissolving and doors are opening, even if it’s not obvious. The thicker the onion, the longer it takes to peel. Likewise, people with many deep hurts and defensive layers take longer to work through their feelings.
When people are upset, their actions and words can be irrational. This is the surface of the onion. Denying feelings sends the message that we don’t understand or can’t handle their true feelings (the core of the onion). In return, people shut their emotional doors. Their feelings, however, don’t go away! They either build a new or thicker wall to hide them or express them later through misbehavior. If we want our children to trust us enough to shed their outer layers and reveal their inner emotions, we need to build trust and show we understand their emotions (by listening).
If children express strong emotions or behave irrationally, we can recognize it as an onion and know we need to look deeper. Listening helps us find clues to the feelings that are at the heart of the problem. We want to acknowledge what children are feeling and thinking at that point in time and connect it to whatever we know about the situation they are dealing with. This lets children know we understand where they are now, so they can move on and resolve whatever’s bothering them.
Often, when we realize something is bothering someone under the surface, we are tempted to drill down to the core. This is too intimidating and intrusive. People are sure to put up walls to protect their vulnerable hurt. They wouldn’t be protecting themselves with layers if they felt safe enough to reveal their true thoughts and feelings. Instead, we need to help people make connections with where they are at that level and just beyond it. Once they feel understood or have insight to what caused the feeling, they release that layer, exposing the next.
A Graduate’s Story. My 13-year-old son has not confided in me for over three years. I always get “Nothin’” and “I dunno” answers to my questions. When I started using the listening tools this week, my son came into my bedroom and started talking to me! He has initiated heart-to-heart talks almost every night! I had to bite my tongue a lot, because I didn’t want to shut the door on our communication. The results I got were so immediate, it gave me the patience and motivation to keep trying.
People often begin a story with a simple or straightforward comment, but something in their nonverbal cues shows there might be more to their comment. Listening helps them connect with those complex, deeper, or hidden thoughts and feelings. The F-A-X Listening Toolset helps people resolve superficial issues and also those that are deep within.
A Personal Story. My parents were true artists at the listening and problem-solving skills. Their attitudes helped me feel safe enough to talk to them about almost anything. Even when they weren’t sure of the problem, their responses helped me figure out what was really going on. They asked me questions that got me thinking about how I could solve my problem. I’d usually say, “Thanks, Mom (or Dad)” and they’d reply, “All I did was listen, honey, you figured it out for yourself.” And they were right! This boosted my self-confidence and self-esteem. As a teen and an adult, I have used the problem-solving skills to resolve my own problems and the listening skills to support others who were experiencing conflicts.
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FAX COMMUNICATION ✰✰✰✰
Human communication is like a fax machine. A fax machine takes a message and turns it into a code to send across telephone lines. The other fax machine receives these codes, decodes them, and creates an exact copy of the original message. When people express emotions, their thoughts and feelings are turned into verbal and nonverbal codes, which they send to others. When we hear these messages we decode the message so we can understand it. While fax machines have a precise formula for decoding messages, people don’t. We take the coded message and filter it through our own code—our beliefs, thoughts, experiences, and emotions. As a result, we often misunderstand someone’s message. Usually, when we hear a message, we react to what someone said. Often, however, we have misunderstood what that person means. Before we respond, we must first check whether we correctly understood the message. There are ways we think, speak, and act that disconnect communication lines. The next few sections identify these barriers and how to avoid them.
We block communication when we make assumptions about why people are sharing their problems with us. If we assume they are bringing the problem to us to solve for them, we respond differently than if we think they are simply sharing information with us. We must understand how different people solve problems if we are to respond helpfully to everyone.
- They must work through their feelings first,
- Logically understand the problem,
- Then plan possible solutions.
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While this three-step process is universal, people differ in two ways:
- Whether they prefer to work out their problems alone or with others.
- The pace they move through the steps.
Internal Problem Solvers prefer to do their problem solving alone. To be most helpful to these people, we need to give them space and respect their privacy. Assume they can solve their problem unless they suggest, verbally or non-verbally, they are having difficulty. Offer empathy and let them know your “door is open” if they choose to talk. (Don’t say “I’m willing to talk.” Say, “I’m willing to listen.”)
External Problem Solvers work out their problems with others. These people are relationship-oriented. They tend to be open about their feelings and we can see where they are at each step of the problem-solving process. Just because these people seek others when they have a problem does not mean they feel incapable of resolving their own problems. They need to hear their ideas, rather than just think them. They need people to show they understand and not take over their problem.
The other difference in problem-solving styles involves the pace people move through the three-step process and where they spend most of their energy. There are two styles: Conquerors and Venters . If we were to compare the problem-solving process to a road trip, Conquerors would take the quickest route possible. Venters would stop to experience each place before moving on to the next.
Conquerors want to get to the bottom of problems and solve them. They tend to be logical people, so they quickly move through the feeling phase of the problem-solving process (step 1). They may not experience emotions strongly or think feelings don’t accomplish much. When they talk about problems, they usually comment on the facts (step 2) or possible solutions (step 3).
Venters are usually emotional people who need more time to work through their feelings (step 1) before they can think logically about the problem (step 2). Sometimes their emotions can seem irrational or illogical, but venting releases the emotional energy that is blocking their logic. Once they release this energy, they can think more clearly about solutions (step 3). When Venters talk about problems, they usually mention their feelings and are not necessarily seeking a solution.
Neither problem-solving style is right or wrong. Nor is one style emotionally healthier than the other. People often assume that Conquerors aren’t in touch with their emotions. This may not always be the case. At the other extreme, there are Venters who become so consumed by emotions they can’t get beyond them to reach a solution.
We usually have one dominant problem-solving style. However, our problem-solving style can change, depending on the type of problem we are facing. For example, we might be a Conqueror at work and a Venter at home or in personal relationships.
If we take these two sets of problem-solving styles, Internal (I) versus External (E) and Venters (V) versus Conquerors (C), we see there are four individual problem-solving styles.
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PROBLEM-SOLVING STYLE COMBINATIONS
PROBLEM-SOLVING STYLE COMBINATIONS
Many communication problems are the result of different problem-solving styles. Knowing your problem-solving style and identifying other people’s problem-solving styles can prevent these problems. When problem-solving styles clash, each person assumes the other person solves problems the way they do and responds accordingly. The mistakes usually involve timing or approach.
Timing conflicts are the most common clash in styles. They usually happen when Venters share feelings with Conquerors. Since Conquerors rush through feelings, they mistakenly assume Venters should do the same. They try to “fix” the Venter’s problem as quickly as possible by offering solutions (step 3, the Conqueror’s strength). Venters think it’s probably unwise to accept someone’s advice if that person doesn’t fully understand the problem (step 1 or 2), so Venters wait for some sign of understanding before they move on. When Conquerors try to solve the problem too soon, Venters get frustrated and think the Conquerors still don’t understand the problem, so they repeat themselves. Then, Conquerors get frustrated because the Venters are getting more upset, repeating themselves, and still haven’t solved the problem.
Approach conflicts often occur when logical Conquerors ask fact-finding questions, which is frustrating for Venters. Venters can’t think about details until they release their emotional energy. When Venters share irrational thoughts, like “I feel like ripping his head off,” Conquerors may say, “Why do you let him get to you like that?” and “Why don’t you just . . .?” The Venters think the Conquerors are denying their right to be upset and get defensive. Venters are rarely serious when they fantasize, but the fantasy helps them vent faster. When Conquerors think Venters are irrational and are rejecting their advice, they see no point in discussing the issue, because the Venter “won’t listen to reason.”
Conquerors must bite their tongues when they get the urge to offer solutions or try to change how someone feels. They need to develop more effective listening skills, so they can help Venters move through the problem-solving steps faster, which is the Conqueror’s goal.
Venters can usually read other people’s nonverbal cues and respond accordingly. Unfortunately, they often assume others can read such hints, so they aren’t clear about what they want. When groups of Venters are together they reinforce each other’s ineffective communication. For logical Conquerors, interpreting such hints is a foreign passive language. Venters need to be more clear about what they want. They need to explain, “When I come to you with a problem, let me blow off steam. Just try to understand my frustration and feelings. When I ask for help or ideas, then you can give me advice.” Venters also need to learn how to “vent in a nutshell” and get to the point.
While reading this, you were probably thinking about style clashes you have in your adult relationships more than your parent/child relationships. Remember, these skills are useful in all human relationships!
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A Personal Story. When my husband and I were first married, I was a Venter and he was a Conqueror. My long stories drove him nuts, so he taught me how to tell a story in a “nut-shell.” Feelings were a foreign language to him so I modeled listening and empathy skills when he had problems and suggested more helpful responses when I had problems. (We found marriage communication tapes and books1 after we had figured this out the hard way!) After fifteen years, my husband is more in touch with his feelings, a better listener, and sometimes talks more than me! Because I do so much listening in my profession, I work through my feelings faster and have less need to vent on and on. We have balanced our differences and met in the middle!
Many parents, even Venters, try to “conquer” children’s problems. This is because most adults believe they are better at solving problems than children and parents should be responsible for solving their children’s problems. When others have problems, remember it is their problem. Join them where they are, instead of trying to push or pull them down the path you think is best. Support them as they try to resolve their own issues and concerns. When people discover their own solutions, they are more likely to follow through on them and remember their lessons.
Problem-solving style clashes are one reason communication can break down, but there are many others. Think about times when you have a problem or are upset. What helps you feel understood and safe to open up? What causes you to feel defensive and shut your “emotional door”? Most people say they want others to give them their full attention and show they understand how they feel. How do you feel when you get advice? Most people say, “It depends on when and how people give the advice. If I’m still upset, I get frustrated and defensive. If they tell me I should do something I feel like they are trying to control me, but not if they offer it as a suggestion.” The same things that help us open our door are the same attitudes and responses that help children feel free to express their opinions and feelings to us.
A Graduate’s Story. As a day care worker, I listen to kids all day long. But when I come home, I throw all my skills out the window! (She is in her “professional” role at work and has parent/child trigger buttons with her own children.) After I read the Universal Blueprint chapter, I realized I wasn’t listening to my teenager. I promised to try harder. Since we hadn’t gotten to the Child Problem Toolbox yet, I just listened quietly. She really opened up! Then she started telling me things I didn’t really want to hear. I started getting upset and telling her what to do. She shut down immediately.
I was mad at myself. I realized that if I invited her to open up, I had to be ready to handle whatever facts and feelings came up. The next time, I bit my tongue and didn’t jump in. I’m anxious, now, to learn what I can say when I have concerns, without taking over or getting upset. (We cover this in the Clear Communication Toolset, since our concerns are Parent problems.)
This mother saw how her attitude and responses caused her daughter to open or close her “emotional door.” Many parents, of teens especially, want their children to confide in them and don’t understand why they don’t. In my “Teens and Parents—Together” class, I ask teens to list the reasons they don’t open up to their parents. Here is one list, exactly as they wrote it:
- Afraid will use against us.
- I don’t have much in common.
- Don’t want them to get mad at me for what I feel or did.
- If we open up, they will interrupt us and preach.
- Keep bringing up the past.
- They try to make us learn from their mistakes, instead of letting us learn from our own mistakes.
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If we want our children to confide in us, there are certain attitudes and responses we want to avoid and others we need to adopt.
Door Slamming Attitudes
Distractions. When people are talking, we don’t always give our full attention. Our minds wander and we think about what we want to say or how we feel about their problem. Sometimes our body language says we aren’t paying attention. When we play with objects, look out the window, yawn, or look at our watch, we send the message that we’d rather be somewhere else.
Bend or sit at their eye level. Offer a gentle touch (if they are comfortable with this). Lean forward; about one arm’s length is ideal. Be relaxed but attentive. Our body language and facial expressions can show warmth and interest, even if we say nothing. We can also use statements such as “Oh?” “Um-hmm,” or “Wow!” to show we are listening.
If direct eye contact seems to intimidate or pressure someone, we can wait until we are doing something together, side by side, and are mostly focusing on the activity. These low-pressure, nonchalant conversations are particularly effective for getting teens to open up.
A Personal Story. My mom and I often had discussions while fixing dinner. Although she wasn’t always looking right at me, her verbal responses made it clear that she was paying attention and was trying to understand what I was saying or feeling.
Impatience. Listening takes time and effort. We often become impatient, hoping others will “get to the point.” Sometimes we assume we know what they are going to say and interrupt. If we think we already have the answer, we want them to be quiet so we can tell them what to do. Such hurried attitudes are arrogant and disrespectful. They also cause us to take over problems, which deprives children of opportunities to learn problem-solving skills.
It can be difficult to listen to lengthy, detailed stories that are not problems. It’s important, however, to listen to these “trivial” things. They are the small tests children give us to see whether they can trust us to handle the bigger problems and more difficult feelings that might arise later. When people go on and on, summarize and clarify what they are saying, “Let me get this straight. First . . . then . . .”
If you are genuinely too busy or distracted to listen, say so, “I can see you’re (feeling) and want to tell me more. I’d really like to listen to everything you want to say, but right now I’m (what you’re doing). At (give a time) I can sit and hear all about it.” Give a specific time and follow through. Don’t wait for them to bring the subject to you again.
Imposing our world on their world. Sometimes, when others express emotions, it triggers unpleasant memories from our past. If we don’t face and work through these unresolved issues, we get overwhelmed by other people’s problems or have difficulty separating our feelings from theirs. If we assume that people are trying to get us to agree with their perceptions, we might explain and defend ourselves. This shifts the focus to us. There are also times when we simply can’t relate to their world. We mistakenly assume that our children (and others) will feel and behave the way we do. We minimize what is important to them or overreact to simple problems. Either extreme causes us to lose our perspective and focus, which needs to be on the person with the problem.
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When listening to others, allow them to have different feelings, thoughts, and opinions. If we think about it, every person comes from a slightly different, unique world. People’s individual personalities, experiences, beliefs, and interpretations influence their viewpoint. We may not agree with people’s feelings or perceptions, but we can show we understand them.
To really listen, we must consciously work on these unhelpful attitudes. Effective listening involves putting everything else out of our minds to concentrate on what others are saying. We need to put our own feelings and thoughts on hold and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, seeing the situation from their viewpoint. Don’t belittle what is important to others. Their perceptions are what counts. If we talk, we want to talk about their perspective. We need to discipline ourselves to slow down and listen to people at their pace.
Door Slamming Responses
People often respond unhelpfully to someone’s feelings when they think the person is over reacting or the negative feelings are directed at them. Other times, we are trying to help, but accidentally take over or say something that shuts down communication. Unhelpful comments usually ignore people’s feelings or overlook their real meaning. There are several types of responses to avoid, to help others feel safe to open up or express feelings.
Advising or giving solutions.“You need to . . .” “If I were you, . . .” When people share problems or express feelings, they are not asking us to take over or give advice. When we give advice, it implies others can’t solve their own problems. Advice also causes parents to take responsibility for solving children’s problems. And if our advice fails, guess who they blame?
Sometimes advice sounds like an order. “You must . . .” “You have to. . .” “You will . . .” No one likes to be ordered around. It makes them feel as if they know nothing. Orders can also start power struggles. By doing the opposite, children prove parents can’t control them.
Analyzing. “What’s really going on here is . . .” “You must be tired . . .” “You’re feeling that way because . . .” Analyzing focuses on facts, which is frustrating for people who are expressing feelings. They don’t want their feelings analyzed. Nor do they want predictions such as “You’ll probably . . . Then they’ll . . . You could end up . . .” These responses sound like we know it all.
Blaming and judging. “What did you do to make them . . .?” “What did you expect?” “This wouldn’t have happened if . . .” These criticisms treat others as though they are stupid and have poor judgment. People shut their doors to avoid further criticism. When we judge children’s feelings and ideas as right, wrong, good, or bad, they conclude their feelings are wrong and they shouldn’t trust them. They might even memorize our opinions and not share anything that goes against them. If people trust us enough to share their thoughts and feelings with us, it’s important to treat them with respect.
Denying feelings.“You don’t feel that way!” “Don’t worry, be happy!” These responses try to change negative feelings to positive feelings. When we tell people not to feel what they are feeling, they may conclude their feelings are wrong and unimportant—and so are they.
Parents especially want to stop negative feelings when children criticize siblings or parents. Our natural impulse is to defend the person and tell children they must always love their family members. We don’t have to agree or defend anyone. We can simply acknowledge that right now this is how the person feels. If we start where they are and let them vent their feelings, they will usually to move on to solutions. Later, we can discuss other ways of viewing the situation and responding.
When children react negatively to our requests, we often assume they are refusing to cooperate. Usually, children are willing to cooperate, they just aren’t happy about it and want us to know. If we deny children’s feelings, they often become more dramatic, to get their feelings across. We can
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acknowledge how children feel, without agreeing or disagreeing—or changing our mind. Once we show we understand children’s feelings, they are more likely to move on.
Diverting and distracting. “Don’t think about it.” “Oh, come on, you look so pretty when you smile.” “You think that’s bad! Did you hear . . .” These statements try to distract people from their feelings by changing the subject. They encourage people to avoid problems and feelings, rather than deal with them. They imply that the person’s problems are unimportant. Not thinking about a problem, however, does not make the problem disappear.
Quick fixes. “I’ll do . . . and then I’ll . . . That will make it better.” “All you have to do is . . .” “Just hang in there!” Quick fixes rescue people from their problems by offering simplified solutions. Clichés also fall in this category. Superficial solutions help us avoid spending the time and energy it takes to really listen. They also insult others, implying their problems aren’t really important or they aren’t capable of solving them..
Journalistic questioning. “Why did you do that?” “Who did it?” “Where . . .” If we want to know all the details about a problem, we are probably trying to figure out the solution. Such questions leave people feeling like they are getting the “third degree.” Fact-finding questions avoid feelings—and until people deal with their feelings, they can’t focus on solutions.
People feel especially defensive when we ask “Why” questions. They think we are asking them to justify their feelings. Sometimes, we get non-answers, such as, “I don’t know” or “Nothing.” These answers are usually true! Often, people don’t know why they are feeling a certain way or even what they are feeling. They may not have a large feeling vocabulary. Amazingly, when we focus on feelings, people know we want to understand the problem, so they usually volunteer the facts!
Telling stories or lecturing. “When I was your age . . .” “The last time I . . .” “I remember when. . .” Stories and lectures shift the focus from the speaker’s experience to the listener. Stories are helpful only if they convey empathy, “I think I may understand how you feel because I’ve experienced something similar.” It is most helpful after people have vented their feelings and if the story is brief. The story should show compassion, not impose our ideas on others. Any ideas we share are simply for others to think about and we want to quickly refocus on the person with the problem. Labeling or name-calling. “Quit being a cry-baby.” “Oh yeah, Mr. Smarty-pants?” “You’re acting like a spoiled brat.” These responses are most common when children have negative feelings about us or they are misbehaving (which is an expression of their emotions). No one likes to be called names and the names can create labels that stick. Name-calling hurts people and brings on revengeful behavior.
Logical debates. “That’s not how it happened.” “Yes, but . . .” Debating is never helpful. People feel inferior, inadequate, and defensive. Debates cause arguments because people think the listener is trying to change their feelings, opinions, or values. People feel misunderstood and shut down. Allow others to have different interpretations or opinions about the same situation or facts.
Minimizing. “You’ll get over it.” “Be tough!” “It’s not worth getting upset over.” “It’s no big deal.” Sometimes, listeners try to avoid dealing with problems by being overly optimistic and pressuring people to change their feelings. If something is important to others and we minimize it, they can become very angry, “That’s easy for you to say!” Thinking we didn’t understand, the person either gives up or gets more upset, trying to show us that it is important.
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Moralizing and preaching. “You should . . .” “It’s your responsibility . . .” “You know better.”The word “should” carries a heavy load of guilt and obligation. People have to feel or handle the problem a certain way or they’re wrong. When we give moral sermons, we are talking down to others, which creates resentment. It also implies that people can’t figure out the problem or trust their own values and morals. Sometimes we’re right, they probably should do something. But until people work through their feelings and catch up to us, they won’t see the answer for themselves.
Warnings and threats. “If you don’t . . . you’ll . . .” “You’d better . . . or . . .” When we want people to see the negative possibilities of an idea, we sometimes word it like a threat. The power and authority in our tone of voice causes people to feel defensive. Sometimes, when we tell children to stop feeling what they’re feeling, they persist—then we threaten to punish them for their insistence. For example, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” Now the child is upset and scared and might cry even harder. These power plays produce fear, submissiveness, resentment, rebellion, and challenge children to test the threatened consequences.
If you’ve identified unhelpful comments you’ve made when your children are upset, don’t beat yourself with guilt. Remember, we always do the best we can with the information and emotional resources we have at the time. The rest of this chapter explains how to respond helpfully.
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