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Listening to Hear and Speaking to be Understood - and the Pain it Relieves

Written by Sue Fuller-Good (MSc Physio WITS) Physiotherapist with a special interest in the mind-body connection


I have been doing a personal study on listening, being listened to, feeling heard, watching someone else speak and not be heard. This is a subject I’d love to chat about with you, and unpack so that we can all begin to get the wonderful satiating experience of feeling that real communication has taken place.

This is more important than we have been led to believe.

I have just had surgery to a nerve in my leg which was trapped by scar tissue. Part of that process included two weeks of strict bed rest to allow the nerve to settle. I’ve done the bed rest and phase two which included a week on crutches with no weight on my foot. Now I am back learning to walk again. I can work and live my life, but I have to slowly train my brain to take weight on my foot again and my nerve to take the strain that creates without flaring up. Who could have guessed that such a simple thing could be so tough?

I feel upbeat and grateful, that I could have the procedure and get the help I needed so I will be able to feel the sole of my foot again in time. That said, at the start of the two weeks, I will be frank, I felt bleak and very disheartened. As I tried to confront the long haul of lying in bed, with lots and lots of pain, when I really wanted to be out there living my life and engaging with the world, I found my mind railing against my reality. I found walking on crutches again and showering on one leg without wetting a plaster cast and not being able to even get myself a glass of water independently all over again, really frustrating and challenging at the beginning of this new journey. It’s easier now, because I know it’s almost over! I’ve spent 4.5 months out of 6.5 months on crutches. I’m pretty sick of hopping by now, but the end of the tunnel is right here now.

During my bedrest, kind, caring people called, texted and visited. Sometimes, when asked how I was doing, I gaily answered that all was fine and good, and sometimes I tried to share the frustration and fear I genuinely felt. In this I had the opportunity to experience and compare sharing honestly what I felt, to just pretending that everything felt fine, so I didn’t have to feel the awkwardness that comes with admitting things aren’t perfect. Most times I noticed when I shared the tough stuff, my loving friends and family wanted to make it all better, and I recognized that this is exactly what I do too.

I am currently busy doing a course in the latest pain neuroscience research. Pioneers in pain science from around the globe are sharing the most hot off the press developments from their research. They are the world’s best. It’s fascinating. One of the brilliant things that the research shows us, is that the biopsychosocial model of pain explains how integral emotion, stress, support, and fear are to the amount of pain we experience. The “three musketeers” as Professor Lorimer Mosely calls them, are the body’s first line of defense to any threat: the Immune Musketeer which orchestrates the immune response, the Endocrine Musketeer orchestrating the hormonal response and the Splint and Sprint Musketeer orchestrating the muscle spasm, or muscle activation response. All of these “3 musketeers” are strongly influenced by the feelings and mood that co-exists with the injury or threat being experienced. Knowing this, makes it easy to see that feeling the support of loved ones or care givers when the chips are down is incredibly helpful. In addition, feeling that people understand your experience and can be with you in your experience, as it is for you, adds to this support and in turn has the capacity to greatly reduce the response of the “3 musketeers.” With a reduced immune response, there will be less swelling, less heat, less pressure, in short, less inflammation and the outcome will be less pain. With a less intense endocrine response, there will be less cortisol, less stress hormones and with that, less pain. With a less intense muscular response, there will be less muscle pain, less lactic acid and less neural irritation from nerve compression and again there will be less pain.

So, my conclusion after this amazing learning experience is threefold:

We will do well to learn to communicate our experiences frankly so that the people in our medical team and our care circle can empathize fully with what we are experiencing. Even if it’s scary to be that open and vulnerable and even if it feels strange and uncomfortable, we will be best served if we can practice and fine tune this ability. It will get easier as we do it more often and we will get more skilled at finding the balance between being over vulnerable and under vulnerable in our sharing, as we repeatedly try. This balance finding can only be learnt “in the field.” You can’t learn to swim by standing and watching the river, and you can’t learn by thinking about it and reading about it. You can only learn by doing it, being in the water and swimming. Sharing your experiences is the same. Just try and you will learn and then you will feel the benefits of that learning.

When we listen, we need to try to listen from a place of really hearing and understanding, not from a place of trying to solve the problem, fix the pain or answering the explanation in some way. Just listening with curiosity for the purpose of hearing what is being communicated, is the real art of listening. This is the biggest gift we can offer anyone suffering or struggling in any way.

We need to help each other by communicating our experiences of feeling heard and understood or not. When we don’t feel heard, we need to try to remember that it’s hard to listen and it’s hard to speak in a way that we can be clearly understood.

So, with compassion and empathy for the difficulty level of the endeavor, we need to keep trying until we succeed. Giving good feedback where appropriate and trying again and again where needed, is the only way we will learn. We have to put in effort and focus or we will never learn this skill.

Imagine if we could create a world in which awesome communication could offer true healing and relief from suffering and in which we were all a little better at it!

I wish you the courage to try and try again and the juicy satiation of feeling truly heard and understood.


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