The Art of Listening

 

By: Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM – Originally published on VitusVet.com.

As a veterinary practice management consultant, one of the things I do a lot is listening.

When I start a consultation, I interview the owner and all the staff and listen to their feedback about what is going well, what they love, what they hate and what they think needs to change.  Then together we begin to work on the issues they don’t like, and polish the ones they do.   I have found over the years that learning to listen engages the team in the process and together, we have better success than if I came in as a dictator and told them what to do. 

Being a good listener is a skill that can and must be honed. 

Often, we have conversations with others only waiting for a break so we can interject our beliefs.   We negate the other persons feelings by dismissing them for our “side” of the story. 

Through social media and personal conversations, I am hearing lots of painfully negative client stories.  People seem to be escalating in their reactivity.  What typically would be no major event has set people into raging tantrums.

As a Fear Free Certified professional, and someone who has spent a lifetime studying animals and humans, it is clear to see the limbic brain taking over in these incidents.  Our limbic brain is the part of our brain designed to keep us alive.  If it senses threat it immediately kicks in and elicits a freeze, flight, or fight reaction.  This is very handy when you are driving down the road and someone runs a light.  Your reactions take over (provided you are not distracted) and before any concerted thought happens – whish! You swerve to avoid the accident.  You immediately find your heart racing, your breathing labored and your body trembling …but you are alive. 

When people feel fear, they will often have these identical reactions.  Our current problem lies in that most of us are living in a low-grade state of fear

We are concerned about our health, our family, our team, and the world at large.  Changes are happening so fast that we can’t utilize another helpful brain tool called a neuropathway.  Neuropathways, otherwise known as routine or habit, are helpful and allow our brain to expend energy on solving complex problems rather than remembering how to get to work or how to brush our teeth.  But when we are forced out of our comfort zone, like everyone in the universe is now, we are on edge and mentally exhausted.  The exhaustion is inhibiting our usual emotional intelligence. We are literally walking around in survival mode… and so are our clients.

So, what can we do?

Plant positive SEEDS!  Your mind is a garden to be tended and if left to its own devices it will certainly fill itself with WEEDS.  Weeds are negative thoughts, self-doubt, feelings of impending attack, and a constant diet of negative messaging.  This is because our limbic, reactive brain doesn’t care if we are happy – only that we are alive to procreate.  That was fine for cavemen, but not for today. Our garden must be planned.  The right soil, proper fertilizer, healthy fruit-bearing plants and the right amount of watering reaps a bountiful harvest. 

What can you do to plant good seeds? 

  1. Positive affirmations: Start your day stating out loud all the good things you ARE.

    For example:

    I am excellent at calming upset clients.

    I am an example of positive energy at my job and at home.

    I am good at my job.

    People like me and listen to what I say.

  2. Practice Gratitude: Be conscious of focusing only on negative things and force those thoughts to be replaced with good things you are grateful for.

    For example:

    I am grateful I get to work with animals every day!

    I am grateful for Mrs. Jones who always is kind and thanks me for helping her pet.

    I am grateful my employer is supportive of my skills and allows me to use them.

  3. Listen to Uplifting Messages: There are many great podcasts available online.  Focus on those that will help you learn to train your brain.  Deepak Chopra is one of my favorites.  Brene Brown is also a high recommendation.

  4. Read Books on Brain Science: Understanding how our brain works is one of the most helpful tools we can develop to live a happy life.  We must learn how to tell our self a better story.

    Favorite books of mine:

    Brain Rules by John Medina

    The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale

    The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

    Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler


  5. Learn to Meditate: This simple exercise can do incredible things to refocus and calm your mind. There are many guided meditations available online.  I have shared Deepak Chopra’s on my LinkedIn page and I also use The Honest Guys on YouTube.  But simply learning the breathing techniques can be a life saver in stressful situations. 

 Take four breathes in, pause for the count of 2, let your breathe out to the count of 4. Repeat for two minutes straight.  Repeat a word in your mind to focus and control your thoughts.  Mine is “calm”.   Random thoughts and pressure will try to creep in but instead of dwelling on them, push them away and refocus on your word.  Relax your shoulders, shut your eyes and focus on your breath.”

Just two minutes can calm your limbic brain and allow your “smart brain” to take over and guide you through your day.

“Okay,” you say, “this is good for me but what about the clients?”

Remember that humans tend to mirror behavior. 

Our goal is that clients who are beginning to ramp up will see our behavior and model it.  Returning to my Fear Free Training, consider the dog who is showing signs of aggression when we approach.  Would you go pet that dog?  Of course not!  We instead are trained to not look it in the eye (a form of aggression to a dog), to turn our body to the side, to throw treats on the ground,and to wait until the dog’s anxiety level comes down so we can then approach it.

Humans are having similar fear reactions.  Our “treats” must be verbal (although throwing a few Valium would be nice 😊 ). When a client makes a negative statement like, “You only care about money!”, we want to react with,  “That is not true, we don’t make much money, we just care about pets!”. Instead we reply with, “Hmm” or “Can you tell me more?”.  This is a surprise to clients because they assumed they would get a rise or argument from you, and instead you are “actively listening” and not playing the game.  Keep in mind that most client conflict is rooted in a few common emotions.  Disrespect is one of the most common.  I suggest you search “wheel of emotion” and notice that the precursor to anger is annoyance and the precursor to terror is apprehension.  It is wise to explore where on the wheel both you and the client are coming from and acknowledge that emotion. 

The maxim “know thyself” was inscribed hundreds of years ago in the Temple of Apollo.  It was true then and it is true now. 

It is only through understanding ourselves that we can be happy, work in concert with a team, and successfully manage the distress of our clients.

For more tools please check out the reading list on my website.

For team communication training (virtual or in person) please feel free to contact me.