Learning to Really Listen Requires the Ability to Pay Attention to All Opinions

Tobi Russell LPC, LLP, CAADC, CCS-M

This is not an article about taking sides, about who is right and who is wrong. Rather this is an article about listening to one another and some of what I have experienced in my counseling office since the election.

In my eighteen years of being a counselor, I have never had clients come into their sessions wanting to talk about their feelings about an election. I had individuals verbalizing fear, anxiety and sadness. I had clients diagnosed with eating disorders that were unable to eat. I had family members where sibling children were arguing with parents. One family member even reported that their own parent refused to speak to them because they voted for a different person than their parent did.

Obviously as a counselor, my job is to listen to people. But I don’t think that people need to be counselors to learn how to listen. Everyone needs to know how to listen. Hearing is different than listening. Hearing is perceiving sound by the ear. Listening on the other hand is something that you consciously choose to do. Listening has the goal of learning something new. Listening does not mean that you agree, but it does require that you respect a different perspective.

There are some important steps to engage in effective, active listening. The first step is to pay attention. Things like maintaining eye contact, putting aside distracting thoughts, and noticing the speaker’s body language are all part of paying attention. It is also important that we are not mentally preparing our “defense” in our head while someone is speaking. If we are thinking about what we want to say next, we are not listening to what the person is saying.

When it is time to respond, it is important to reflect what you think you have heard them say. For example, what I’m hearing is….or it sounds like you are saying…..As difficult as it may be, allow the person speaking to finish each point before asking questions and resist interrupting.

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. It adds nothing to the conversation when you attack another person verbally, name-call, use passive-aggressive communication or bully them into agreeing with you. The 200 plus hate crimes that have been reported since last week is an example of individuals not listening to one another, but rather taking one characteristic and choosing to make that a reason for attacking that person. These behaviors are not limited to adults. Schools are seeing these behaviors as well. As adults, we have a responsibility to model appropriate ways to disagree.

Social media has made it even easier for us as a society to say demeaning comments to another person because we believe we have the cover of our computer screens. Somehow that makes the person on the other end of the screen not a “real” person. But they are real people. People with thoughts, feelings, goals, and dreams.

From a mental health perspective, it is important for all of us to practice the skill of listening. We all want to be listened to because it provides us a sense of belonging, which is a basic human need. November 13th was World Kindness Day, a day that encourages individuals to overlook boundaries, race and religion. I challenge all of us to celebrate this every single day. Our happiness and survival depends on it.

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Set and Keep a New Year’s Resolution

Kalynn Potter, LLPC, MBA

Here we are again. Closing out one year and entering into a brand-new year. How many times have we done this and set expectations for ourselves, only to let ourselves down? Is it a lack of commitment? Are we too hard on ourselves and with one slip give up? Or are we overwhelmed by the thought of trying to make a significant change?

I believe that setting a new year’s resolution can be fun! Let’s look at it as implementing a change in our lives that is going to give us greater happiness. Accept the fact that it is going to be a challenge. But really how big of a challenge will it be to do something we want to do? And we must believe we are going to succeed. We cannot set ourselves up for failure by thinking negatively.

Approach it with enthusiasm. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

The first thing to do is to write it down. Just writing down a goal increases our chance of achieving it. The success rate increases further if we share our progress with someone.

Let’s set a goal using the SMART approach. The letters are an acronym. The S stands for Specific. The goal should be as specific as possible. Not just that we want good grades but that we want an average of 85 or higher in math. The M is for measurable. Measuring provides feedback. Instead of, “eat less in the evening”, put “the evening snack will be of protein and carb and under 200 calories”.

The A is for attainable. We do not want to set a goal that is unattainable. We want it to challenge us and we want to be able to achieve it. The R is for realistic. Make sure the timeframe set makes it possible for the goal to be achieved. And lastly, the T is for timely. Is there a timeframe listed? This helps us to be accountable and provides motivation. We’ve set the goal in the SMART form which provides a path to our success.

Start each day with your new year’s goal (resolution) in mind. It is important to provide positive feedback to yourself and possibly from a supportive friend as progress is made. And it is equally important not to get down on yourself if you slip up. Don’t give up! The next day is a chance to start again.

Making a change in life takes time. The actual length of time it takes to form a habit is debatable. It has been said to range from 21 to 66 days. It is important to be the most diligent in the beginning. So be patient with yourself and view it as a process.

If you have a goal that you want to achieve and believe you could use support, we at Rochester Area Counseling can provide support and guidance. If it is a goal you have attempted and failed maybe there is something blocking your success. Whatever the situation, we wish you the fortitude and insight to set a goal based on your values and to achieve and sustain it. Life changes are important for everyone. As they say, without change there would be no butterflies.

Reduce the Stress and Enjoy The Holiday Season

Tobi Russell LPC, LLP, CAADC, CCS-M

The holidays are here again and we are starting to see the hustle and bustle all around the community. The decorations are up, the shopping has begun and plans are being made for holiday lunches and dinners. It can be easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of it all and forget about self-care. Here are some thoughts to consider for making it through the holidays with less stress.

The first key is taking time for yourself. This can be difficult when you feel pressure to be everything to and for everyone else. However, there are only 24 hours in a day and you are only one person. Focusing on self-care is really the best thing you can do for yourself and for others, because others will enjoy you more if you are stress-free. Go for a walk, listen to your favorite music, read a good book, or watch a movie or TV show. Whatever activity you choose, let it be something that helps to recharge your batteries.

The next key is to have realistic expectations. There is no such thing as a perfect holiday celebration. Accept that you will have things that do not go as planned and use those times as ways to grow your own flexibility. If the cookies get burned or the dog tears open the wrapping paper on the presents under the tree, the tendency can be to think that the day is ruined. However, these can be looked at as family memories to laugh and bond over for years to come.

The other unrealistic expectation is that you must buy every single present that is on the wish list for your child or family members. This can cause a great deal of financial stress on individuals when they are unable to get everything. Be honest about what you are able to buy and do not go beyond your limit. For children, talk to them about the reason for the season and that the holidays are not about getting expensive gifts. One way to actively teach children about giving back is through volunteering at a charity. This time of year can also bring up feelings of grief and loss regarding the absence of a loved one, either through separation or death. The holidays can be a reminder that the person is no longer a part of your life. Allow yourself time to grieve the losses in your life, but also give yourself time to celebrate the person or the traditions that they created. If you had a strained or poor relationship with the family member, allow this to be a time where you create new traditions or memories. Sometimes individuals can notice feelings of sadness related to the shorter days and the cloudy, snowy weather. Some can experience a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder. If the season is a trigger for your feelings, consider changing some of your routines and get as much natural light as possible, exercise and utilize stress management techniques. Other options are light therapy, which is a box with a special lamp that simulates sunlight that you can use daily or through talking therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

The last key is to talk with your support systems if you are feeling sad or anxious. Getting your feelings out in the open can help you work through your thoughts and the person you are talking to may be able to help you come up with a solution. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by your emotions, consider seeking out a professional to help you manage your holiday stress.

From everyone at Rochester Area Counseling Services, we wish you a happy and stress-free holiday!

What Is All the Fuss About Mindfulness and What Is It?

Kalynn Potter, LLPC, MBA

I first learned about Mindfulness about fifteen years ago, when a friend led me to the book section in Border’s by Thich Nhat Hanh (known as Thay). Martin Luther King called him an “Apostle of peace and nonviolence”. The media has referred to him as the Father of Mindfulness. Thay, has led events for the US Congress, parliamentarians in the UK, Ireland, India and Thailand. He has addressed UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris. Thay has addressed the World Bank, and the Harvard School of Medicine. Mindfulness has moved full force into the academic realm where one can earn a master’s degree in mindfulness. Today, mindfulness is being taught in corporations and in the classroom.

So, what is it? Thay explained that through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment—the only way to truly develop peace. Mindfulness can be defined in a variety of ways, however, they all basically come down to the following: “paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity”. First, this definition tells us that mindfulness is a process of awareness, not thinking. Do you get tired of the thoughts that constantly run through your mind? Mindfulness is about paying attention to the experience in the moment. Not being caught up in thoughts! Second, mindfulness involves a particular attitude: one of openness and curiosity, even if the experience of the moment is painful or difficult. The key is to be open and curious versus running from or fighting it. Third, mindfulness involves the ability to embrace flexibility in the moment. To choose to direct or broaden your focus.

So, how do we accomplish this? Do we need to use meditation which is part of most mindfulness models? The answer is no. There are other mindfulness skills that can be learned. This is good because for many meditation is hard to sustain. However, meditation is not the guru in yogi pose that may come to mind. Meditation can be in the form of walking meditation. Or done for only a few minutes. Whether mindfulness involves meditation or not is up to you.

So why has mindfulness gone viral? Could it be the unrelenting hold on our attention today? Stress has bombarded people from business leaders on a 24/7 schedule to kids who feel the pressure to succeed even before puberty. The response is directly related to stress. There is an increase in the level of suffering and an acceleration of the violence in the world. Through media we are intimately affected by images, sounds and pain like never before.

So, if you desire a personal world where you slow down to get more done, reduce stress, build better relationships, and are happier and healthier, I encourage you to seek out more knowledge about mindfulness. I invite you to explore the many resources available that can help you, or you and a significant other, or you and your family. It is literally at your fingertips. If you desire professional guidance, it is available through Rochester Area Counseling Services. Mindfulness has proven effective with a variety of conditions including social anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as workplace stress. We use mindfulness skills within the context of values and goals. Clients learn to identify, clarify and connect deeply with their core values, and then to use these values to set goals and guide the changes they make in their lives. Mindfulness not only helps clients to overcome the psychological barriers to change, but also to engage fully in the ongoing process of values-based living. Mindfulness to me, is and always has been, “Living Consciously”.

Talk to School-Age Children About Bullying NOW!

With school starting, few topics are as important to discuss as bullying. This is a concern to parents, students, teachers, and administration; hence, it is an issue for the community. To create lasting change, it takes all of us working together. Research shows the quality of a school’s culture makes a tremendous difference in the amount of bullying that takes place, however, no school is immune from the act of bullying.

So what is bullying? “Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Bullying includes making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Cyberbullying is the same as traditional bullying in that it is intentional, aggressive, repetitious and has a power differential. However, the real difference in cyberbullying is that digital media allows it to take place 24/7. There are three types of bullying; verbal, social and physical. Verbal bullying includes teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting and threatening to cause harm. Social bullying includes leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors and embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying can be hitting, kicking, spitting, pushing, taking/breaking someone’s things and making mean/rude hand gestures. There are three individuals involved in bullying. The one being bullied, the one doing the bullying and the bystander/witness.

The important question you are probably thinking is, “What can I do as a parent/adult?” If you have not already, please talk with your child about bullying. Clearly define it for them and make sure they understand the first step to take if they are bullied is to tell someone! Specifically, a parent, adult at school or friend. If you are concerned that your child may be a victim of bullying, look for symptoms such as an altered mood, withdrawn or anti-social behavior, change in relationships, decline in academic performance, appearing anxious at the sound of text or email. If your child has witnessed bullying you may see the first three symptoms listed above, plus they may show fear of retaliation or alienation. If your child is showing symptoms of mood changes that involve aggressive behavior, if they use tactics to be in control, and they demonstrate a lack of empathy toward friends and family, they could be bullying.

Bullying has a long-lasting effect on an individual’s life. Mental health can be affected by low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Physical health problems can be exhibited through headaches, abdominal pain, dizziness, sleeping problems, or bedwetting. Social health may be negatively affected by a sense of not belonging and delinquent/criminal behavior. Working together to create positive relationships with caring adults alters the negative impact of peer aggression for mistreated students, the aggressors and the witnesses.

Connection is key. Having an adult students can count on at home and at school is vital to healthy development. In closing, I want to encourage our youth to be an active bystander. Help others who are being bullied. Be a friend, even if this person is not yet your friend. Let them know you think what just happened was wrong. Encourage them to talk with an adult. Offer to go with them. Stop spreading untrue/harmful messages just because everyone else is doing it. Reach out to people who are alone or new at your school. Respect others even though they are different from you. Being different makes us all unique. Make your school a safe and better place!

The Time for Empathy Is Now

The week of July 4th has been one of celebration of our country’s independence, but also one of sorrow following the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas, Texas police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol (a Michigan native), Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. 

These events are on the heels of the mass shooting in June, killing 49 individuals and wounding 53 others inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was both the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in U.S. history, as well as the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Events such as this also lead to discussions in the course of therapy. Clients, both young and old, have had feelings about what is going on and attempt to process it. There are many times on the news where individuals are labeled as “mentally ill” which then gives an impression to the public that individuals with mental illness are all violent. This is simply not the case. In fact, several studies including one from Vanderbilt University in 2015, states that less than 5% of individuals with mental illness engage in violent behavior. When we label people, it becomes an easy way for us to explain why something has happened.

A word that has been brought up during conversations this week is the concept of empathy. There is concern about the apparent decline of empathy in society today.  A study published by the University of Michigan in 2010 found that college students today are showing a 40% decline in empathy than college students in the 1970s. But what does empathy really mean?

Empathy is not the same as sympathy.  Empathy is understanding how another person feels or putting yourself in their shoes.  Sympathy is recognizing another’s person’s problem and providing them comfort, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it. There are 2 parts to empathy; the cognitive part and the emotional part. The cognitive part makes us try to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings. The emotional part makes us react to another person’s thoughts and feelings and respond appropriately to what they are feeling. You have to have both to equal empathy. Remember when your mom or dad said, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” or the Golden Rule, treating others as one would wish to be treated?

What is causing this decline in empathy? Some will say social media has caused people to say whatever they want to say behind the courage of their computer screens. Some will say that it is the reality show culture of competing to be the best. Some will say it is the fear of anything or anyone that is different from ourselves. The truth is that there is no one simple answer to this question. 

One thing is clear though….in order to heal, there has to be a growth in empathy. We can celebrate our independence and freedom, but still care about our fellow man. Kindness does not make one weak. Courage does not always roar. I was reminded of a great quote by Mahatma Gandhi in watching a story on the news this week and it goes like this……”An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”. If each of us can be empathetic to those around us, and show compassion whenever and wherever we can, the hope is that we will all finally be able to see.

Spring

Happy first day of spring!

Spring always brings to mind a time of renewal….the flowers begin to bloom….the birds begin to chirp……people begin to come out of their houses and re-engage with the world. It’s almost like living in a cocoon for a few months and then peeking your head out to see what is going on around you…..

Spring is exciting because it is a time to do something new, something that has never been done before. Melchor Lim has a quote that says “there are three little words that can release you from your past struggles and regrets and guide you forward to a positive new beginning. These words are: ‘From now on’.

Allowing yourself to let go of past regrets is freeing and necessary to move forward… Holding on to the past is not helpful because you can’t change it…..unlike daylight savings time, we cannot rewind the clock. So if you are struggling with forgiving yourself, here are some great steps towards letting go…..the first step is acknowledge that it was not the best decision. If you do sincerely believe that you were the cause of something, acknowledge it, but do not dwell in it. The second step is to accept accountability for it. Once you have acknowledged the behavior, then you can make amends to yourself or to someone else. The third step is to let it go. Once you have stated genuine apologies to yourself or others, then it becomes your choice whether or not you hold on to the guilt and shame. The fourth and final step is to move forward. Learn from the experience and take what you have learned into future situations.

So now you are ready to spring into spring……enjoy the new season of beginnings and say out loud, from now on……..