The art of listening

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

When we are truly listening, the other feels heard and seen. This is true for people as well as animals. When someone is upset, frightened or worried instead of listening it is much more common that being is offered solutions to fix their problem or distractions so they forget about it. When someone hurts, instead of empathy we offer our favourite strategy to avoid the unpleasantness.

It is usually not a skill parents teach their children, in fact, we are conditioned from the beginning with the responses from our childhood environment as to how emotional distress is best handled.

When our animals display difficult behaviours – their way of showing anguish or overwhelm – the go-to solutions are training and medication. Training aims at giving the animal something else to do, something else to focus on, it’s a process of reconditioning. Commitment and gazillions of repetition will usually lead to success, be that reaching a manageable improvement or a complete rehabilitation.

Medication, in isolated cases, can be temporarily helpful. In most cases it just results in numbing an animal so their inner tumult seems reduced and they are more acquiescent. A common drug given to anxious dogs is Lovan, its active ingredient is fluoxetine hydrochloride which is the same as in Prozac. Not only does increased tolerance cause the need for higher dosages but ‘we now have unequivocal evidence from a wide range of side effects that Prozac-type drugs impair the normal functioning of the brain,’ extensive research revealed.

Neither of these approaches actually listens to the animal. We hear (and see) their distress and react. But that’s not listening. We choose a plan of action, we proceed to attempt fixing the disconcerting, the intolerable. Because that’s what we all have learned to do in such circumstances. We come to the rescue.

Photo by Yulia Matvienko on Unsplash

What if we could learn how to listen, so the other feels heard and seen? What if we could simply hold space with our focused presence to allow the other’s process of letting go of their upset which takes with it the problem and they arrive at their own solution? We give back the responsibility where it belongs. Only when we free the other from the victim status we have ascribed to them, we are truly helping.

Listening so that the other feels heard and seen is a skill. It needs our full attention, patience and the willingness and strength to allow someone else to express the full extent of their inner experience. This witnessing, this unfazed allowing of the other’s particular pain, is essential. It’s also so very difficult. It can seem unbearable. Upset, anxiety, worry and similar states trigger us into our ‘feeling sorry for’ response, we feel compelled to do something about it.

When it comes to the animals in our life, the Trust Technique shows us how to listen so that they feel heard and seen and thus can let go of that which causes their unpeace. When the solution comes from within instead of being orchestrated for them, the learning goes deep. In the wake of this process, trust and confidence grow, contributing to the overall resilience and resourcefulness of the animal.

How can we create a world where everyone is able to listen so the other feels heard and seen? We start by learning it ourselves, modelling it and so teach the children in our life. Like this, these children grow up having been listened to, feeling seen and heard, and it will be their natural response to another in distress.

Stories are a great way to inspire. Here are two books that my little people love, about the art of listening and what makes us really helpful.

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld is about Taylor who built something special, something amazing. Out of nowhere it all comes crashing down. First come all the traditional offers of help but none of them actually are helpful to Taylor. Then the rabbit comes. She has no suggestions but only moves close to the boy and listens. She listens to the whole range of emotions that come up for Taylor one after the other. Through it all, she never comments. And when the time is right, the boy knows just what to do. The book is simple – just one sentence on each page – but so profound, its illustrations so poignant.

The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland tells us about four friends on a cold and rainy day looking for a dry place to play. The spot they find, however, is already occupied by someone else. Their racket disturbs a sleeping bear who grouchily chases them away. Three of the four friends come up with a plan – bear just needs cheering up, with each of the favourite things that makes them happy. You probably already guessed that bear is not impressed but even more furious. The fourth friend understands what this situation really needs, she actually listens and makes bear feel heard and seen. The whole situation transforms to where everyone gets what they really want.

The art of listening is responding to another’s feelings not their words or behaviours.

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing,
a creative force.
The friends who listen to us
are the ones we move toward.
When we are listened to, it creates us,
makes us unfold and expand.

Karl A. Menniger

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