The writer Francis Hennesey believes the reason many people gravitate to psychotherapy and life coaching is the assurance that they will have direct contact with a focused, engaged and unbiased good listener for a designated period of time, usually 45 minutes. We crave optimal engagement with “digital detachment.” We like to speak with someone who is not constantly checking his phone or texting. Active listening also includes a listener whose nonverbal facial and body communications are an integral component of the communication process. Hennessey states that good listening skills encompass engaging all of our senses, being patient and nonreactive and being totally in the moment.
How many people in our lives, possibly including ourselves, are poor listeners. That list often includes spouses, parents, doctors, teachers and many more. Good listeners make us feel validated, that our thoughts and emotions are real and important.
The French call them “animal de compagne.” We call them “emotional support animals.” According to current research, the US population is lonelier than it has ever been before and we frequently turn to animals to help us cope with this void. Our animals “listen” to us in a nonverbal way and they are completely devoted. The trusted animals are usually cats and dogs, but the species vary greatly. In a recent AP article, a 65-year-old Pennsylvania man who claims that his emotional support alligator, named Wally, helps him deal with his depression.
Wally is a registered emotional support animal whose owner reports Wally likes to snuggle and give hugs. Wally is five feet long and growing. Wally could grow to sixteen feet and, to date, has never bitten anyone. His owner takes Wally out for walks, visits senior citizen centers and Wally loves to be petted.
According to his owner, to have a pet designated as an emotional support animal the owner must have a medical professional state that the animal provides mental health benefits to a person described as having a mental health disorder. An emotional support animal differs from a service animal with the latter being trained to perform specific tasks. In recent years, the law has tightened on the requirements for what is a legitimate emotional support animal as lots of fraudulent documentation has flooded the internet. It is most definitely proven that pets can calm us and, some research indicates, lengthen our life span.
Mindful listening specialists suggest that we don’t judge a negative person too quickly but, through good listening skills, we try to discern what motivates negative folk and to understand their fears. Other suggestions are:
• Heightening our observational and awareness skills. Try not to interrupt the speaker. If you slip, apologize and get back on track.
• Do not ever finish another’s sentences for them. This is a bad habit that will be infuriating to the speaker, as well as a turn off to the speaker to continue.
• Good listening includes confirming respectfully to the speaker that you have heard her. This can be especially frustrating if we disagree with what the speaker is saying. Harder yet if the speaker’s views trigger off a negative emotional response in us.
• Body language is a vital part of mindful listening. Suggestions include leaning forward but not crossing one’s arms or legs are just as important as is the right amount of eye contact — not too much or too little.
• Eye contact should be on a level plane with both parties. I remember reading that if you find yourself in a room with an IRS auditor, to remember that the auditor is there to be in charge and will do things opposite to friendly communication like sitting in a higher chair.
• Personal space is an important component in good listening skills. Americans, generally, like to keep our distance between ourselves and others, especially if we don’t know them.
Another essential ingredient in the complex mindfulness listening is that the good listener needs to remain calm, especially if the topic may be emotionally charged. Give the speaker pauses to think and speak.
We should all take a moment to determine what kind of a listener we are. This assessment can be done in less than 15 minutes just between ourselves and our computers. Go to Psychology Today (2018) and take the quiz. It’s free, but if you want to pay $6.95, you can have an analysis of your results. This isn’t necessary as it is pretty easy to discern where we stand on the listening scale just by thinking about the questions as you answer them.
The late author Pat Conroy, (“Prince of Tides,” “The Great Santini”) wrote “The most powerful words in English are “tell me a story.”
Let me add to that. The most powerful words are also “Listen to my story.”
(Pinter is the founder of Psychological Services Inc., with offices in Sunbury, Bloomsburg and Danville.)