Can better listening support our wellbeing as we emerge out of lockdown?

According to Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist researcher of human social engagement and interaction, our culture doesn’t support us to listen to each other in the way we were designed to do. We communicate more online, by phone and by text than our nervous system can easily handle. This has been greatly amplified by the lockdown conditions of the last year. 

Porges says that in the physical presence of another person we are constantly monitoring their facial activity, their gestures, their movements, the intonation of their voice, including their posture as they lean forward in conversation. All these subtle movements trigger our nervous system to tell us whether we trust them and want to connect or whether we want to move away. 

Our bodies are hardwired to detect cues of connection and safety.

These cues also help us to co-regulate, a term used to describe how we use each other’s physical presence as a way of helping us feel OK, something that stems from infancy. Once again, the social isolation of lock down has largely taken this away from us.

Our bodies are hardwired to detect cues of connection and safety. But these cues are diminished if we are not face to face. Therefore, we have to adapt and compensate when we are online and on the phone. It can be exhausting. It can make us feel anxious, and more stressed, because of the extra load on the nervous system. However, we might not be fully conscious of what is causing this depletion. 

We need a certain amount of social engagement to make us feel OK. But we also need to exercise our social interaction ‘muscle’ which can become withered when out of practice. It is common to feel nervous when re-engaging with others after a long period of no social engagement. How can you support yourself to easily move back into society after not seeing people for a year?

Embodied listening, or whole body listening, is a skill therapists often use to listen to their clients with presence and compassion

One way is to better listen to each other, by being more conscious of how you listen. If you listen with your whole body, it will give you more cues. This not only helps your own body and mind to feel better, but it helps those with whom you are interacting. They feel better too. When you give them your full presence and attention they will trust you more, and literally be able to hear you better (because of the neural pathways coming on board).

Embodied listening, or whole body listening, is a skill therapists often use to listen to their clients with presence and compassion and is a useful skill for general life. It is about deep listening and offering an authentic response, using the body to tell you what is authentic. It is all about listening to yourself, to others, and to our environment. 

The first step is to get to know yourself and all your body’s subtle expressions. Then you can listen to the other. How does your environment affect you? How does the other person affect you? Does your heart race, or is your voice weak? Do you feel like you want to run away or are you engaged and happy to listen? Does your mind wander off?

Can you slow down and give time to the other person speaking? This can be harder than you realise. Next time you are talking to someone, try to let them speak without saying anything for a few minutes. No interruptions. No trying to fix the situation. Just listen. 

Don’t listen and at the same time think what you are making for dinner or what time the kids have to be collected. Just listen to the other person, with as much presence as you can muster. Often as you listen it triggers other thoughts that you want to share with the other. Try to save these thoughts until the other person has finished what they are saying.

The first step is to get to know yourself and all your body’s subtle expressions.

Listening better as part of your wellbeing programme helps your relationship with yourself and with others. If you don’t listen to others it can cause arguments and frustrations. If you don’t listen to yourselves you can burn out and cause illness. 

Embodied listening also allows you to listen for what’s not being said. This can be sometimes just as important as what is said. What does your body tell you about what’s going on? This might sound like an intuitive practice but it can provide a lot of important information and is grounded in your instinctual neural wiring. 

The other important practice when you are faced with the changing situation of coming out of lock down is to listen to yourself. Listen to your own body and hear what it is asking of you. (This is a link to a simple guided body scan)

You might want to give yourself extra time to recover and recharge. Can you find ways to spend time with others in a way that you feel nourished? Do you need to start by seeing just one or two people to allow yourself to get used to being with others again? Do you feel uncomfortable in large groups, or far away from home? Maybe re-engaging feels great. But maybe it doesn’t. The important thing is to honour how you feel.

Most important, be kind, be compassionate and be gentle with yourself and others. 

**This article was first published in Ambition, the Northern Ireland Chamber magazine**