Breathe Away Anxiety

When we are anxious it is usually because we’re fixated on the future. What if? is the mantra. We fret and worry about all the things that could happen. We plot and plan ways to avoid catastrophe. But most of what we worry about never happens. Or, we are powerless to do anything about it. And so, we spend time and a great deal of emotional energy fruitlessly agonizing.

This behavior comes naturally to we humans. It is our evolutionary inheritance. Only our ancestors who were able to imagine the future and take precautions against hunger, predators and the elements were able to pass on their genes.

So, we are stuck with brains that become anxious very easily. Then, when we cultivate this state of mind, even stronger connections are made in the brain that reinforce anxiety and make it our go-to when we feel stressed or afraid. But, because there are no sabertooth tigers running around our neighborhoods and most of us have plenty to eat and a warm place to sleep, this adaptation doesn’t work so well for us in the modern age. Instead, it causes much suffering.

The good news is there are ways to reprogram the brain and create a greater sense of peace and well-being in our day-to-day lives. One of the most effective strategies is to use our breath to bring ourselves into the present moment and to reset the nervous system.

When we focus on our breath we are more able to be calm and mindful. We can leave behind the “what ifs?” and enjoy what is. Here are three of my favorite techniques:

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing: This is an ancient yoga technique that just about anyone can do. It is extremely calming and is said to balance the brain. Click here for a full description and how-to video.

2. Box Breathing: Begin by breathing out to the count of 4. Then hold the breath for the count of 4. Breathe in for the count of 4. Repeat. Continue until you feel centered and calm. The count can be customized. Some people prefer longer breaths, such as 7, 7, 7 or 5, 5, 5. There is an excellent free app for smart phones that walks you through box breathing and helps you set a breath length that works best for you. It is called Virtual Hope Box. It also contains many other helpful tools for coping with high emotion.

3. Calming Breath: This technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, has been touted as a cure for insomnia. Breathe in through your mouth for the count of 4. Hold your breath for 7. Breathe out for 8. Repeat 3 times.

These specific techniques are time tested. They work. However, it can also be effective to simply bring your attention to your natural breath. Here’s how:

Notice the sensation of the air coming in your body. You may feel a coolness at the nostrils as the air comes in and warmth as you breathe out. You may notice your chest rising and falling. If you are taking a deep breath, you may feel your abdomen expand. Just bringing your awareness to these sensations can be calming and is the basis for many forms of meditation. If your mind wanders while you are doing this exercise, just notice that you have stopped watching your breath, and gently bring yourself back to it. Don’t judge yourself. Just observe. Just enjoy being right here, right now.

Instead of a mantra of  “what if?” we can create a mantra that helps us focus the mind and let go of worries and emotions. Here is one I like:

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.
Conscious breathing is my anchor.

For more advanced breath work check out the book by mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, called  Breathe. You are alive!

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Dont Let Fear Run Your Life

Your heart pounds. Palms sweat. Mouth is dry. Your stomach may feel sick or your thoughts race. You are experiencing fear.

Fear can be both ally and foe. It can inform us of imminent danger and help keep us safe. Or, it can paralyze us and make it impossible to live life fully and realize our potential.

So, how can we tell the difference between fear that is reasonable and valid and fear that stifles?

One effective strategy involves checking the facts. Fear thrives in the limbo of the unknown and unexperienced. Gathering information can reduce fear or eliminate it. For example, someone facing a divorce may be in a constant state of worry about their future until they see an attorney and gather the information they need to understand how divorce will really affect their finances and living situation. With that information they can take the steps necessary to protect themselves. Having facts doesn’t always eliminate fear, but it can make it more bearable by pointing us towards solutions.

Once we have facts, we can make more informed decisions. We can discern what is in our power to change and take action. And, we also understand what we must release because it is outside our sphere of influence. Letting go of things we have no power to control offers freedom.

Fear comes naturally to us all. Our ancestors relied on fear to keep them alive and so this trait has been passed down. Fear is generated in the oldest part of the brain where other instinctual behavior such as sex and anger are initiated. When we are stuck there it can be impossible to access logic. It is the part of us built to act quickly and think about it later.

Taking deep, mindful breaths, changing body temperature quickly, or doing something relaxing can move us out of the old brain and into the pre-frontal cortex where we can think more clearly and make more rational decisions. When experiencing fear, worry or anxiety, first, work to calm yourself.

To Manage Fear:

1. Breathe slowly and deeply. Take a hot shower or use a progressive relaxation exercise or yoga to calm the mind.

2. Face the fear. Avoiding what we are afraid of can reinforce the fear and paralyze us.

3. Check the facts. Gather information. Is your fear justified? In other words, is your life, health or well-being threatened in some real way. If so, take steps to keep yourself safe.

3. Decide what is within your power to change and, if possible, take action to improve the situation.

4. Choose to let go of things that are not within your power to change. Trying to control the actions or reactions of other people is often fruitless. If you are fearful about the consequences of another’s behavior, do what you can to protect yourself and then accept that we often cannot solve problems for those we love.

5. Letting go is not something we do once. It is a process that must be repeated over and over. Fear will return. Begin again by breathing deeply and slowly.

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Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work and What to Do Instead

This is the season when many of us are taking stock of our lives. The Christmas holiday and another year is behind us and the new year looms with all its promise and possibility. On New Year’s we may make resolutions, to lose weight, stop drinking, follow a budget, spend less time watching television and more time learning Spanish, focus more on our primary relationship, communicate more effectively or look for a better job. But most of us will fail in our attempt to let go of old habits and begin new ones. Why is it so hard to change and why don’t New Year’s resolutions work? It all starts in the brain.

Anything that we have done over and over again has created a strong neuropathway. The saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What this means is that over time our habits have created powerful connections between neurons in the brain that make doing what we have always done more comfortable, easier, than doing something different.

It is as if we have taken a walk in the woods every day and stayed to the same trail. Eventually that path has become very easy to follow. There are no branches or brambles in the way and no grass growing where we walk. The path is clear and well-trodden. Changing our behavior and thus our neuropathways is, at first, like bushwhacking a new trail through the forest. There is brush to clear and weeds to pull and if we aren’t consistent the branches and weeds will quickly grow back.

So, changing behavior is a process. This why resolutions don’t work. Making a decision to change and expecting yourself to just wake up the next day and do things differently is denying the powerful pull of the well-worn trail in the brain.

So what does work if you want to change behavior?

1. Taking small steps towards a goal works much more effectively than an all or nothing approach. This is called shaping. For example, research has shown that a strict diet which totally eliminates certain categories of food almost always fails in the end. After some initial success, we feel deprived and go back to old eating habits. We tell ourselves, “Well I’ve already blown it, so what does it matter?” A more effective approach is to gradually reduce portion size and keep healthy, low calorie foods within easy reach and high calorie foods in a place that requires some effort to access.

Simply taking a few potato chips out of the bag to eat, putting them in a small bowl and then returning the bag to a high shelf, can help deter over-doing it. It is like placing a log across the well-worn path in the woods. Yes, we can still scurry over it, but chances are the new path looks easier, so we are more likely to follow it.

2. Research has taught us that what is within easy reach is what we will gravitate to. So, if you want to learn Spanish and watch less TV, hide your remote and put your Spanish text next to the chair you sit down in regularly. If you want to go for a run in the morning, put your running clothes out the night before right beside your bed. Make your new behavior the path of least resistance.

3. Reward yourself. Small rewards can help reinforce behavior. Something as simple as making a check mark on a calendar or crossing something off a list can be rewarding. For dieting and exercise, tools such as My Fitness Pal, an app for smart phones, can also help reward your efforts, by recording what you eat and your activity level. Devices you wear that track number of steps taken throughout the day have also been shown to be helpful in increasing activity levels. Rewards don’t need to be elaborate or expensive, they only need to be consistent and give you a tiny feel good boost of endorphins each time you engage.

4. Get support. It is often easier to accomplish something if you have a buddy doing it with you. Will you cancel if your friend is waiting at the gym to work out? Or, if the teacher you hired has given you Spanish homework, will you be more likely to follow through? If you are like most of us having another person involved will be motivating. Enlist a friend, colleague or family member to be your trail buddy.

5. Don’t give up. Changing behavior takes time and persistence. But the good news is that no matter your age your brain is able to develop new neuropathways that support new ways of being. You can blaze a new trail.

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A Dark Night of Healing and Hope

We are nearing winter solstice (December 21st) a day that will be the shortest in this cycle around the sun, a day with more darkness than light.

When I think of this celestial event it reminds me of the expression, “a dark night of the soul” and how our human experience can parallel the cycles of nature. When darkness comes into our lives it can be hard to remember the heat of summer or the lilt of spring. It can seem as if destruction and decay are the only things we will ever experience and that rebirth and growth, light and heat are impossible. And indeed, in the midst of winter’s cold, grey days, they are. But below the surface of things nature is preparing for the new and so can we.

In working with clients and in my own life, I have noticed that a time of turning inward to grieve, to reflect, to dream, to understand, to make peace, often comes before a burst of growth and greater well-being. We need the dark, quiet time for this underground work.

It can be challenging during the holiday season to pull back from the frenzy of doing. But because this time of year often brings up memories and loss, it can also be the perfect time to accept our own darkness and truly be with it in a way that heals and prepares us for spring.

To Honor the Night:

1. Let it be dark. Turn off lights and electronics for an hour in the evening. Savor the quiet. What arises inside you when things are damped down?

2. Light candles.

3. Write a letter to someone you have lost and express your appreciation for the role they have played in your life. Mail it by placing it in a book or special box.

4. Listen to contemplative music.

5. Cry.

6. Bundle up and go for a walk. Notice how trees and plants look this time of year. Remind yourself that though they look dead, they hold all the richness and splendor of blossoms and leaves and fruit within them.

7. Forgive someone. Forgive yourself.

8. Look at the stars.

9. Watch the sun rise.

10. Read a poem like this one by Mary Oliver:

 

Lines Written in the Days
of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

 

 

Remember, on December 22nd the days will begin getting longer.  Light will return. You can begin adding light to your life too. If you need help letting the light in, get in touch with a counselor, a supportive friend or family member or call our community helpline 541-779-HELP. 

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Redefining Family

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” Jane Howard

As an only child, who lost both of my parents by the time I was 25, I have long struggled with a sense that I struck out big time on the family lottery. By that age most of my family members were deceased or unavailable. I never met my father’s parents. They were gone before I was born, as was my maternal grandfather. The only grandparent I knew lived far away during my childhood and then appeared when I was a spiteful teen. We were never close.

There were no family reunions or holiday gatherings to shore up my sense of heritage or clan and the few aunts and uncles that survived were not part of my life. And so, I entered adulthood feeling alone.

I was often sad about this and saw myself a victim, particularly at the holidays or when others spoke of family get-togethers. I imagined those folks spending summers camping and boating together and winters tucked snug in their homes telling stories around the fire and sipping cocoa.

It didn’t take long, however, for me to realize that these pretty ideas about other people’s families were probably unrealistic. I learned that it is rarely effective to compare the surface of other’s lives to the brutal clarity with which we see our own situation. I also realized that even though I didn’t have a family to call my own, it was possible to create one.

Some people call these creations “families of the heart”, or their “tribe” or “peeps” or perhaps, “a sister or brother from another mother”. These are people who feel like family even though we are not biologically related to them. They are people who are there for us and who fill some of the roles that a healthy biological family might.

My own mother created some of this. She found an older woman in our small town who sewed gorgeous ballet costumes for me and often invited us into her pink and white storybook cottage. Her home was filled with dainty figurines and I spent hours looking at them while she and my mother talked. My mom also found a family of untamed children for me to run amuck with. Karen, the oldest girl in this family, became a life-long friend and one of the few people still living who shares memories of jumping out of a hay loft into piles of sweet, new hay, or the precarious climb up the steep, muddy cliff to the rope swing at our swimming hole. She also remembers how Della’s Variety Store, where we went to by candy and prizes for the “carnivals” we were always planning, looked when it was filled with a thick haze of Della’s cigarette smoke. I am thankful there is someone who knows that skinned-knee-kid part of me.

But it wasn’t until I was grown that I began adding to my family of the heart myself. The first to sign on is a woman I met in group therapy. We were like oil and water at first. She, angry and adamant about her views, me, scared and judgmental. But through the deep work of healing together, we bonded. These days, 25 years later, we call ourselves sisters and she says she feels closer to me than to her own far-flung siblings. If I was hurt or in trouble, Cathy is one of the first people I would call. She has moved me…several times. I have cleaned out her drawers and painted her kitchen. We have cried over our kids and husbands and over the pace of life and how it all keeps slipping away. I was the one who told her she was being unreasonable in her marriage, and she confronted me when I needed to let go of one of my kids. We are truly family.

Then there is my congregation of moms. For the last ten years I have belonged to a women’s writing group in which I am the youngest member. It is made up of a contingent of powerful, sensitive, talented and engaged women, most of whom are old enough to have given birth to me. We sit around a big dining room table every week and share, not only our writing, but our lives, and when I’m with them I feel my deep need for the maternal satisfied.

As you can probably tell, I believe we can create family. If the biological clan we have been given is absent or toxic, it is possible to still have the sense of belonging and support that most of us want and need by building a family from the relationships in our lives that are healthy and deep.

Doing this involves a shift in consciousness. We have to let go of our preconceived notions about what “should” be and imagine what “could” be. We must be willing to grieve the void and perhaps the pain that our bio-family has left us with, and then become open to the possibility of a rich and satisfying new family of our own design. Richard Bach says it best, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”

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Appreciating Clouds: Year-Round Gratitude

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a man describe an organization he created called “The Cloud Appreciation Society” (Listen to this TED Radio Talk Here.)  He told about how he and a small group of people often took time to stop and admire clouds in all their billowy, feathery, transitory beauty.  That simple act brought them greater well-being and contentment. This reminded me of how taking stock of beauty, love, purpose and process can be a powerful anti-depressant. It is noticing that is the catalyst.

We don’t need to have material wealth to be thankful. In fact, after our basic needs for warmth, food and safety are met, more possessions usually don’t make much difference in overall happiness, according to folks who research such things. It is instead, the quality of our relationships and our ability to focus on the sweetness and beauty in life that determines mood and thus our sense of overall well-being. (Read about some of the research on gratitude here. )

But many of us only notice what is wrong. We may have a negative mental filter. This way of seeing the world and ourselves keeps out the positive and our attention stays on what is difficult, uncomfortable, anxiety provoking, or mistakes we or others have made. This keeps us locked in depression, anger, anxiety and fear.

One way to work with a negative mental filter is to pay attention to the clouds. In other words, look for and highlight the good things, the beautiful things, in your life. They can be simple. For example, whenever I go for a walk I think of how well my body still functions, how it moves me from point A to point B, and how much it has been through and yet keeps going.

Or it could be like yesterday, while waiting for my son in a grocery store parking lot. I watched the sun set in a burst of orange and gold striated clouds, and thought how lucky I was to catch those ribbons of color at a time when I had nothing else to do but drink it in.

When I step into a warm shower after a long, tiring day, I am grateful for the abundance of water I have at my disposal and how good it feels to stand under a warm cascade of it. And at night when I snuggle up against my partner’s body and hear the rhythm of his breathing, I notice how safe and how loved I feel and am filled with gratitude.

In this time of year, when we are asked to pause and celebrate Thanksgiving, it is also a good time to begin a year-round practice of gratitude. Being grateful on a regular basis just might change your life. Here are some ways to begin:

1. Be mindful. Notice what is happening around you and find something to appreciate. Really pay attention to all the details of what is happening, of what you see or what you are doing. Be in the present moment.

2. Keep a gratitude journal or list. Every day at the about the same time, take five minutes to write down what you are grateful for. You may be surprised at the power of this one small change in shifting your mood and outlook.

3. Say thank you. Express your gratitude to people you care about. Do it in writing, in person, by text. Catch your children being good. Catch yourself being good.

4. Share some of what is good in your life. If it is possible for you to write a check to an organization you believe in, do it. If not, find some other way to be generous. When we share, we feel more prosperous and sharing highlights the abundance in our lives whether it be money, time, talent or skill.

5. Make a choice to notice the positive in people around you. Yes, that irritating thing your friend or co-worker, or partner does will still be there, but what about the way he always wishes you a good day, or how she knows when to give you space and when to offer a hug. Pay more attention to those kinds of things.  Pay more attention to the clouds.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Cloud Watching.

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Happy Holidays? Surviving and Even Thriving in the Dark Times

The winter holidays come in the midst of ever darkening days when long afternoon shadows and cold winds seem to whip up feelings and memories along with the shaggy leaves. The weather and the short, dark days reflect for many of us a season not of joy and celebration, but instead, a time filled with disappointment and even despair.

What is it about the holiday season that can be so challenging? And, what can we do to weather it with greater peace and even a bit of joy? Read on for ideas about the origins of our misery and steps we can take to survive and, yes, even thrive, this time of year.

Expectations
Happy smiling faces, a perfectly set table, children dressed in red sweaters, a sparkling tree with presents stacked high, friends and family sharing eggnog under the mistletoe. These and many more are the mythological images we are bombarded with at the holidays. The message: This is what it should look like. Yours doesn’t? There must be something wrong with you.

For many of us, our families, homes, finances and even our cooking, are not perfect, far from it. But, we often long for the mythological holiday, that has probably never really existed. Instead, our reality could be loneliness, loved ones lost to death, dysfunction or distance. We may be unable to afford presents or a tree, or are afraid of Uncle Bob’s tirade after too much eggnog. Comparing our situation in all its gritty reality to the mythological images in the media can be disheartening and thrust us into melancholy. Those pretty images can prime us with unrealistic expectations that are a set-up for feelings of failure and disappointment.

It has been said expectations are premeditated resentments. This is especially true during this time of year. Work to minimize expectations, and make those you have realistic. Create back up plans to call on when things fall through (which they will), and don’t rely on others to make your holidays special. Take control of the things you can and let go of the rest.

Celebrate Meaning
Whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, take time to reflect on the essential meaning it holds for you. Are you just going through the motions because that is what you’ve always done, or what others expect of you? Or, are you in touch with and honoring beliefs or traditions that have meaning? How can you make that meaning more a part of the celebration? What could you eliminate that does not seem to be consistent with meaning? What could you add that would make this time more meaningful and memorable?

Invest in Moments Instead of Things
For many of us, this time of year is full of high stress and harried schedules when there never seems to be enough time, energy or money. And while we are rushing around trying to create a perfect holiday experience, we often miss out on the very thing that could build relationships, positive memories and create well-being. We miss out on the moment happening right now.

It can help to slow things down, and when we limit our expectations, that happens more naturally. Take time to really be with loved ones. Listen. Laugh. Be in the silence. Breathe. Look around and find the beauty in whatever is. Count your blessings. Consider how you can create more opportunities for connection and relationship building.

What most of us really want is more love and attention, not more stuff. This goes double for kids, regardless of what they might say.

Create New Traditions
It can be painful when things change in our lives and cherished traditions are no longer viable. Divorce, relocation, death, estrangement or changes in finances can make upholding past traditions difficult. Make a decision to be flexible and creative. Create new traditions that fit current circumstances.

For example, one divorced mom decided that rather than argue with her ex over who had the kids at Thanksgiving, she would create a new way of celebrating gratitude. So, every year she held a harvest potluck and musical jam session two weeks before Thanksgiving. She invited all her friends and family and told her kids to do the same.

Eventually, this occasion grew into an annual event that took on great meaning for this family and the many people who participated over the years. They discovered that being with people they were grateful to have in their lives, eating, drinking and making music together, was a great way to honor gratitude and what day they did it, didn’t really matter that much. In fact, celebrating early meant they were able to share the experience with many people who otherwise would not be available. During the Thanksgiving holiday itself, this mom treated herself to a day of reading and relaxation while her children celebrated with their father. It was a win for all concerned.

Opt Out
Can’t find meaning in the holiday? Not sure why you’re doing it all? Sick and tired of the commercialization? Do what another family did and opt out. They decided together when the children were 7 and 10 they would spend their Christmas budget on travel instead of presents. They held a meeting each summer to decide where they would go and what they’d like to do and see. The kids were involved in planning and research. Together they made many wonderful memories on their holiday get-aways and never felt deprived.

Acts of Service
Another way to opt out is to make the holidays about service to others. This can create more meaning both for us and for those we serve. And, serving others often is an excellent remedy for the holiday blues. You might choose to buy a gift for a needy child, serve food at a homeless shelter or walk dogs at the Humane Society while other volunteers spend time with their family. Or maybe you just bake a pie and leave it on your neighbor’s doorstep (even if you don’t like him much).  They are many ways to help and they all get us out of ourselves and into meaning.

Self-Care
If you are rushing around, eating lots of sweets, not taking time to exercise, drinking more alcohol, worrying about how you will pay the credit card bill, and staying up late to wrap gifts or put together bikes, it can be a recipe for irritability, illness, anxiety and conflict. Now is the time to increase self-care strategies rather than letting them fall away. Get enough rest. Eat your veggies and be careful about alcohol consumption. Monitor your thoughts for negative self-talk and keep within your budget. And, remember, it will all be over soon.

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Listening Skills for the Brave and Passionate: Taking it to the Next Level

The last few blog posts have been all about listening; what gets in the way, why listening is important and how listening well can enhance our relationships. So, if you have read and practiced the skills presented so far, now is your chance to take it to the next level by learning the components of effective listening.

There are four basic steps. They are, encouraging, restating, reflecting and summarizing. Though these are presented as steps and it is good to learn and practice them this way, in reality, the steps get all mixed together like a delicious fruit salad when you are really in the listening groove.

Encouraging

Purpose: To convey interest

How to do it:
• Maintain gentle eye contact
• Lean forward
• Smile, nod, line up your body so you are facing the person speaking
• Use a positive tone of voice

What to say:
• I’d like to hear about it…
• Would you like to talk about it?
• I’d be interested in your point of view…
• Sounds like you have something to say about this…
• How do you feel about that?
• Tell me the whole story…
• I see…
• Uh-huh…
• That’s interesting…
• Then what happened…

Restating

Purpose: To show that you are listening and understanding. To let the speaker know you grasp the facts and to build rapport.

How to do it:
• Restate the speakers basic ideas, in your own words, emphasizing facts.

What to say:
• If I understand, your idea is…
• In other words, your decision is…
• So when you came back to college you had a hard time finding child care, but this year it hasn’t been an issue for you. Is that right?

Reflecting

Purpose: To show you are listening and understanding how the speaker feels about the subject being discussed. Often you will need to take cues from voice tone, body language and facial expressions to uncover the emotions.

How to do it: Reflect the speaker’s basic feelings, using your own words. Identify emotions such as sad, angry, irritated, frustrated, happy, excited, relieved, etc. Be sure to confirm that you have gotten it right. Don’t assume you know how someone feels. Guess at their feelings, and then ask for confirmation.

What to say:
• You feel sad?
• So, you were pretty disturbed by what happened.
• Apparently, this has made you very happy. Is that right?

Summarizing

Purpose: To pull together important ideas, facts and feelings and establish a starting point for further discussion and to follow up with additional questions and clarification.

How to do it: restate, reflect and summarize the major ideas and feelings the speaker has expressed. Clarify facts and feelings.

What to say:
• These seem to be the key ideas you have discussed…
• If I understand you, you feel frustrated about the situation.
• Let me get this right, these are the events that occurred…. and you felt…. when these things took place. Is that correct?

So there you have it.  The four basics of good listening for the brave and passionate.  Remember, in a real conversation it is rarely this linear.  Instead you may start with encouraging, skip to reflecting feelings, go back to asking about the facts and restating them, reflect feelings again, summarize, encourage again, reflect and restate, reflect again, summarize, etc.

It is helpful to find someone to practice with.  Ask a friend or loved one if they are willing to have you listen to them tell a story about their day or a childhood memory.  This is a great way to hone your skills and give the gift of  being truly heard to someone you care about.  Happy listening!

Listening Practice

To learn and practice listening and communication skills in a class or one-on-one, contact Joann Lescher at Speaking from the Heart in Ashland, or for national and international trainings on non-violent communication visit The Center for Non-Violent Communication.

Books on Active Listening:

How to Listen So Kids Will Talk and Talk So Kids Will Listen By: Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

The Art of Active Listening:  How to Double Your Communication Skills in 30 Days By:Josh Gibson

Non-Violent Communication: The Language of Life By Marshall Rosenberg

 

 

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Listen Like You Mean it!

There is almost nothing better than when someone really listens to us and we get the sense that they understand exactly what we are saying and how we feel about it. The following skills will help you become a better listener and if you practice them, improve your relationships.

How to Listen Well:

  • Stop talking.
  • Clear your mind. One of the most common obstacles is what goes on in our own head when we are trying to listen. Instead of paying attention, we begin to think about what we will say next to defend ourselves, to make a point, or even to agree. Don’t do it! Focus on the other person and what they are saying and feeling. You don’t have to agree with someone to understand them.
  • Pay attention. Another common problem is distraction. It really isn’t possible to listen well with the TV on or your eyes locked on a cell phone.
  • Make time to listen. Sometimes important discussions should be scheduled. Don’t try to have a serious talk when you are hurried.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Lean forward. Show you are interested in what the other person is saying with your body language.
  • Check your assumptions. Ask the person you are listening to for clarification. Don’t assume you know what they mean. Get more details. Ask questions.
  • Restate in your own words what has been said and ask if you are getting it.
  • Guess at the feelings being expressed, even if the person hasn’t used any feeling words. You might say, “It sounds like you were frustrated with your boss today. Is that right?”
  • Empathize.
  • Be patient. Don’t finish sentences or jump in too soon. Some people pause for quite a while before continuing to speak. This can be particularly true when dealing with emotional topics.

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“What Most People Really Need is a Good Listening to…” Mary Lou Casey

Listening deeply is a skill that can improve our lives and relationships in profound ways. But most of us just don’t know how to do it. We don’t know how to communicate that we understand, not just the nuts and bolts of what is being said, but also the feelings and needs of the speaker. And this understanding is often all someone really wants.

Instead of listening to understand, we are often formulating our response, plotting our defense or thinking about how to solve the problem our friend, partner, child or colleague is discussing. This approach can create disconnection, anger and misunderstanding. On the other hand, listening well and communicating our understanding effectively can create intimacy, healing and compassion.

Below is a quiz to help you think about how you listen. The next blog post will outline simple ways to improve your listening skills and what gets in the way of listening well.

1. Do I listen to understand or am I getting ready to speak?

2. Do I look at the person when she/he speaks to me?

3. Do I allow the speaker to finish his/her thoughts without interrupting?

4. Do I keep my emotions in check when listening?

5. Do I ignore distractions such as the TV and phone when listening?

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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