By Irene Perrett
Reading beautiful words written by a friend recently caused me to reflect on the value of authentic listening in a relationship. As humans, it seems to be something we struggle with in our efforts to help or show understanding. There is a need to try to interpret, to see comparisons, and to voice our own thoughts and sometimes biases. Though this may be with best intentions, not to own the conversation but in an attempt to move on from difficult or emotionally triggering topics or to show empathy for another, it can engender feelings of distance; of not being heard.
So naturally my thoughts turn to our nonhuman friends. How do we listen authentically to their conversations without stepping in to interpret or assume? This question could be philosophical but for now I’d like to think about what we do and how we feel through the process of listening. Authentic listening happens when we step back from who we are in our busy day-to-day lives. The clock stops, time pauses, and as pressures of doing drop away from us we become aware of feeling calmer and more open to the nuances of the environment around us. This sensitivity brings subconscious awareness. Our senses pick up on how the other is through passively observing.
Just as we may be aware of the different birdsong around us, identifying the variety of sounds and tones but not bringing our consciousness to the songs - until one particular voice stands out from the others with clarity and intent. Tuning into this one voice, following the waves of notes as they rise and fall, finding ourselves in symmetry with the song so that it is almost a shock when other voices once again start to be heard. These moments of oneness with the other, of letting go of who we are and becoming one with the song, or the words, or the silences, these moments offer us the chance to listen without interruption from our own thoughts.
In these moments we are authentic to ourselves, and so can hear the clarity and intent of the other’s words. Being prepared to step away from the rush of day-to-day even for a few minutes may take practice. The value though is that we can learn to listen authentically, to walk beside another for a few steps and for them to feel heard.
Not being heard must be so commonplace for the animals we live with. Anthropocentrism deafens our ears, speciesism creates biases, cultural beliefs and peer pressures stifle our courage to look beyond socially accepted norms. Nonhuman animals become marginalised – they are contained in their physical and metaphorical space in order that we feel comfortable with our actions towards them. This thinking puts limits on our own awareness of the world. If we are deaf to the voices of others, we cannot hear the diverse range of conversations that are all around us and that in truth we are a part of.
I have diverted a little from my topic, but by engendering acceptance of the other for who they are, not what they are, we become able to listen authentically without judgement or assumptions. The anecdote that inspired me today is of my latest foster dog. Orla arrived six months ago in the middle of winter. She very quickly told me that she was fearful of being confined, that she could tolerate humans at a distance as long as she felt she had room to move away; to escape from the pressures humans impose. It has taken careful conversations, listening to her and being authentic to her communication. We recognise when another is trying to understand us, even when mistakes are made. In showing regard for how she feels, we have made small inroads into trusting one another and eventually to a place where she is able to process rather than feel panic. I’ve learnt to recognise when she consents to us working together. One animal may show different signals from another so it can take a little while to learn the nuances of the discourse; listening authentically to the needs and preferences enables the animals to elicit feelings of safety and, if we are fortunate, trust.
It took several months for Orla to feel comfortable wearing a harness, then a trailing lead, then me touching the lead. I would sit near to her and just show her the harness and remove it, then have a day or two without before showing her the harness again. This went on for weeks, with her choosing when she felt ready to move on. It is still work in progress, but never at the expense of our relationship. She will now walk a few steps on a loose lead and then sit beside me, none of it from a cue but because she is learning to feel comfortable and the interaction is enhancing our understanding of one another. The added joy is seeing her so pleased with herself, she is growing in resilience and in confidence. Within these moments of being together there is symbiosis and the relationship between us strengthens just that little bit more.
Irene is an active part of IEP and volunteers her time to be part of our Administration Team. She is based in Devon and works with both equines and dogs.
Irene has fostered numerous dogs and given them the time and space they need to emotionally rehabilitate, helping them to navigate their world and develop their self-regulation skills.
For more information about Irene, please click here to visit her biography page