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Why it’s so important to be a good listener

In this Wellness Daily exclusive, Mitch Wallis – who runs one of the world’s fastest-growing mental health movements – explains how and why effective listening makes such a difference.

When I was in the midst of my severe clinical anxiety and depression, I was never good at having one-on-one conversations, because I found that mode of communication too exposing and vulnerable.

I found it much easier, instead, to text or email my mates about what I was going through, because that was an avenue through which I felt I had more control over the conversation and could properly map out my thoughts and feelings.

In conversation for The Wellness Daily Show, Heart On My Sleeve founder Mitch Wallis explained that disclosing mental health issues in such forums was no less valid than a face-to-face conversation. Like most things, he said, a black-and-white answer is not going to be helpful – such conversations exist somewhere in the grey.

“There’s so much talk around conversation, but if you go into the science, why does speaking about it work? Philosophically, if I told how I feel to a chair, why wouldn’t I feel better? The answer to that is that it cannot be materially changed by you. That is, it cannot absorb your internal world and spit out a reaction to it. Therefore, the medicinal factor of speaking is that the receiver cares and shows you they care, and it’s that care that heals us,” he said.

“You want to feel like the format or convention of the conversation or sharing your feelings is appropriate and relevant to you. You want to feel comfortable so that vulnerability can actually come out, because if it’s just a conversation of a mask and kind of pleasantries, nothing’s happening, so it’s really important to do what feels comfortable. That said, the other side to that conversation is that, if you’re feeling too comfortable, nothing's healing.”

People don’t go to the gym and lie down with an end result of muscle growth, Mr Wallis said: “You have to tear a muscle for it to grow.”

“The exact same thing is true for the mind. Pain does not indicate something is going wrong. Something is going wrong when we move from tearing the muscle to injuring the muscle. Our goal is to feel uncomfortable.”

When asked why it is so important to be a good listener, he said that mental health is not the absence of problems, nor it is an absence of negative emotions.

“If two people see a bomb go off, one person gets PTSD, the other one doesn’t. Why is that? That means, in the algorithm or the equation, there’s a subjective filter where situation plus filtering process of that person equals outcome. It’s the filtering process of the person that is far more important than the situation that occurs,” he said.

“The first is we don’t need to have a life free of bad situations or problems in order to be happy. We can be happy in spite of them. It’s more about coping than it is not letting problems happen in the first place, so the first is we need to get really good at coping and responding well to what happens.”

“The second thing is we don’t need to not only have no problems. We don’t need to have this expectation that we have no negative emotions even in that response to the problem, i.e. the existence of anxiety and depression and mania and any of these symptoms does not indicate that you are ill,” he continued.

And by the way, he added, “there is no such thing as ill and healthy”.

“We are all going on a spectrum. In fact, the only thing that separates someone whos – quote, unquote – normal and someone who’s – quote, unquote – crazy is two variables: intensity and duration. Every single thing that is experienced by someone who is nuts is experienced by someone who is normal on a weekly basis. The only thing is they feel it a bit more for a bit longer than the regular person,” he said.

Putting all that together, Mr Wallis submitted, mental health is simply the absence of excessive emotional negative emotions.

“That is, they’re intense or too long, so we just need to get rid of the excess part and the presence of positive states on top of that, so how do we get really good at coping and responding to our problems so that we’re not in the state of excess negative emotions, and then how do we bring in positive states like joy, play, love, romance, creativity on top of that? It’s the removal of the infection and the presence of the healthy bone,” he said.

As a result, effective listening is so crucial, he concluded, because “conversations are the currency of connection”.

“It is the enabler. It’s the money that we give to each other in order to allow that economy to exist. Therefore, if connection is the outcome we’re driving to, conversation’s how we get there,” he said.

To listen to the full conversation with Mitch Wallis, click below:

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain