Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Why Listening is Good For You

By Dr. James J. Lynch

Condensed from The Language of the Heart, in Readers Digest – 8/96, pp. 122-124


The Web address of this reprint is http://sfhelp.org/cx/skills/listen_lynch.htm  

Updated April 11, 2015

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      This YouTube clip will prepare you to get the most from this reprint:

available Spring, 2003      This reprint is one of a series on seven communication skills. Learning to use them is the second of 7 Lessons for people seeking high-nurturance relationships and families. Note the unique Lesson 2 guidebook, Satisfactions - 7 relationship skills you need to know (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010). You feel satisfied when your current needs are met.

      The term empathic listening was coined by Stephen Covey, insightful author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He did so after Dr. Lynch's book was published in 1986.

      Dr. Lynch's research focused on "hypertensives" - Type-A people with significantly high blood pressure and other traits. My clinical experience suggests that such "driven" men and women are usually ruled by a false self and don't know it  or what it means.

      Could you be a Type-A person?

      The hilights and links here are mine. - Peter Gerlach, MSW

  Why Listening is Good For You

      We take talking for granted. Though you may occasionally feel your hands grow cold before giving a speech, you often talk without recognizing the concurrent changes that occur in your body.

      But after 20 years of research, my colleagues and I have discovered that all communication involves our bodies, sometimes profoundly. While we speak with words, we also speak with every fiber of our being. This "language of the heart" is integral to the health and emotional life of all of us.

      We found that even a pleasant chat about the weather can affect the cardiovascular system, particularly blood pressure. The traditional way of taking blood pressure - with a stethoscope - meant that the patient had to keep silent, and this silence prevented clinicians from discovering the link between communication and blood pressure.

      The breakthrough in our studies occurred in 1977, when we met Ed, a typical hypertensive patient who came to the University of Maryland's Psychophysiology Center for treatment. We hooked up Ed to a new computer that could continuously monitor blood pressure. We found that his pressure immediately increased every time he spoke, even if he was discussing the most neutral topic. What was more surprising was that Ed was unaware of these changes.

      This finding so intrigued us we began testing others. The results were the same. Blood pressure and heart rate rose rapidly whenever people talked. We asked students to read aloud from a bland text. Their blood pressure and heart rate rose rapidly every time. We tested eight deaf-mute volunteers. When these people signed, their blood pressure also increased. This confirmed our suspicion that it was the act of communication, not just talking, that led to these changes.

      When I lectured on our research, I would ask volunteers to come up and talk on any subject, while a computer monitor displayed their blood-pressure changes on a screen. One young physician announced proudly that he jogged five miles a day and would surely beat the machine - then turned in disbelief as he heard the audience laugh, and saw his blood pressure shoot up whenever he spoke.

      For people like Ed who were hypertensive, the rise caused by talking was much greater than for healthy people - often well into the danger zone. How do hypertensives handle this? After all, most do not drop dead during social encounters. Other studies show that they subconsciously maintain distance in their relationships and minimize what can be for them "lethal dialogues."

      What makes the cardio­vascular system of hypertensives so vulnerable to verbal communication? Though the hypertensives we studied appeared outwardly calm, many tended to talk intensely and breathlessly, interrupting and speaking over other people. This kind of speech is typical of Type-A behavior - an impulsive, hard-driving lifestyle linked to increased risk of heart disease.

      Most normal talk is a seesaw. The rising of blood pressure when one talks is balanced by a rapid lowering of pressure when one listens. But the rhythm is out of sync in hypertensives. They frequently fail to listen; they are on guard, defensive. So their pressure stays up.

      The benefits of listening are seen in the "orienting reflex," discovered by Pavlov. When a dog hears a sound or sees movement, it will stop all activity and cock its head. Another Russian scientist, E. N. Sokolov, noticed that the dog's heart rate slows.

      A similar response occurs in people too - and it lowers blood pressure. One experiment charted human pressure during three activities: reading out loud, staring at a blank wall, and watching fish in a tank. Blood pressure was highest when the people spoke. But it was lowest when they watched the fish, rather than when they simply sat and relaxed. Whether watching fish or listening to another person, attending calmly to the world outside yourself helps lower blood pressure. When I got hypertensives to listen undefensively, their blood pressure often fell dramatically.

      Why do some people find talking so stressful, and listening so difficult? I tested some healthy newborns. When they cried, their blood pressure often doubled. We began thinking about pressure surges in hypertensives as similar to the changes when a baby cries. Though calm on the surface while talking, their bodies are screaming to be heard. For these people, communication becomes a desperate but hidden struggle. Inside their adult bodies is a baby  crying, terrified because no one can hear it.

      Status can compound the communication problem. Many patients told us their pressure was always lower when they took it at home than when their doctors took it. Could the doctor's high social status be a factor? To test the idea, we recruited 40 medical students, and had their blood pressure taken while they were quiet, and while speaking. For half the students, our researcher dressed in blue jeans and said he was a graduate student. With the other half, he wore a white lab coat and said he was an internist. Those who spoke to the "doctor" registered higher blood-pressure readings.

      The implications are far-reaching. Is the higher risk of hypertension among low-income Americans due, at least in part, to their status in society? Are they frequently "talking up" - and raising their blood pressure?

      We speak billions of words in our lives, and listen to billions. Our relationships with others constitute a kind of "social membrane" that surrounds us. Hypertensive people seem too sensitive to this, too responsive to it. Their high blood pressure reflects this chronic hyper-vigilance. By contrast, patients who are schizophrenic withdraw. (Of all the groups we tested, schizophrenics had the lowest blood pressure and the least change when they talked - their dialogue had all the earmarks of pseudo-talk, lacking in heartfelt communication.)

      So how can we enjoy conversation yet keep blood pressure down? By listening more, by breathing regularly while talking, by alternating between talking and paying attention to what the other person is saying. But what can hypertensives do? Treatments that teach them to focus on their relationships and how to communicate in a relaxed way can be a start toward health.

      We can understand and cope with illness only when we view ourselves as part of a complex world beyond the confines of our own individual skin. The response of our hearts, blood vessels and muscles when we communicate with spouse, children, friends and colleagues is as vital to our cardiovascular health as is exercise or diet.

    Learn more about communicating more effectively by studying Lesson 2 here. To see if you need to do that, take this quiz.

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