Tag Archives: understanding

The Caring Habit of Listening

By Kim Olver

As a healthy relationship habit, listening isn’t just about hearing another person, waiting for them to stop talking so you can jump in with your “words of wisdom.” Listening is about doing your best to understand another person. Try to stand in their shoes, be in their skin and see the world with their eyes as best you can. No one can have perfect understanding of another. That would mean you would have to actually be that other person, but we can work at doing the best we can.

Understanding doesn’t mean you have to agree. You can see it from another’s point of view and still maintain your own perspective as true for you. One example is a wife who speaks to her husband about his excessive drinking. She believes his drinking is having a serious effect on his health, particularly his achy joints and his liver. He explains to her that he has a lot of anger that he doesn’t understand and that drinking helps him contain that anger. She is able to understand his perspective without agreeing with him. It helps her be more understanding of the reason he drinks.

Another example, involves an incident when I was sixteen. I remember asking my mother if I could stay home from school. She asked if I was sick and I replied, “No, I’m not sick but I can’t go to school with this huge zit on the end of my nose. Everyone will stare at me!” My mother’s response: “Kimberly Marie, get ready for school. You won’t even remember this five years from now.” Well, I’m 53 and I still remember it, Mom.


This is not to say I think my mother should have allowed me to go stay home from school. What I wish is that she would have listened to me to understand how devastated and desperate I was feeling. She might have even shared about a time she had a pimple and it wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be. Almost any response would have been better than having my perspective completely disregarded. (The funny thing is, in one way my mother was right. I don’t remember my classmates reactions that day but I do remember my mother not really listening to me.)

Do you have any stories about a time when someone didn’t listen to you? Or maybe you have a story about a time when someone did and it really made a difference. Can you be the person today who really listens to someone important to you to understand their point of view?

To understand or to be understood?

By Dr. Ken Larsen

Years ago I was in a workshop on relationships.  The speaker had us all stand up and pair off in twos, facing each other.  He then had us put out our hands in front of us so we could touch the hands of the person facing us.  He then told one of each pair to push against the hands of the other.  It didn’t take long for us to get the point he was making.  When you push, people tend to push back.

Then he told one of the two to stop pushing and to step back.  The other one fell forward almost into the lap of the one who stopped pushing.

Kind of a dramatic illustration of what might happen if we stop pushing in a relationship.

Sometimes it’s better to work on understanding the other rather than being busy trying to push to get the other to understand your position.

I think people do better when they are understood than when they understand.

sexinheavenDr. Glasser’s opening question, “What do you want?”  Is a strong move toward helping the other feel understood.

For those of you familiar with Christian scripture, do you think the woman caught in adultery felt understood?   The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, did she feel understood?

Many of you will recognize the prayer of St. Francis:

“…O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

We have an opportunity with every encounter with another person to think about understanding or being understood.  It is a choice.  The choice we make will have an impact on our own mental health and happiness and on the mental health and happiness of the other.   Choose well.





Toward an understanding of mental health

by Dr. Ken Larsen

Years ago I came to the realization that what might be considered “normal” within a social culture is not necessarily healthy.  Smoking was a “normal” behavior, but it was and is killing people.  This is not healthy.

Then I looked at how many people really wanted to change the seeming inevitability of dental disease.  Even though most of these folks did what was recommended, which was to brush their teeth regularly, the problem continued.  What was needed was an understanding of the cause of dental disease which could then lead to steps to remove the cause and prevent the disease.  As a result of this learning, more and more people are living a lifetime with their own teeth.

Now I want to look at mental health and happiness through the lens of these insights.   With understanding comes the power to change.

One thing common to both the issue with smoking and uncontrolled dental disease was that significant progress was made when they were treated as public health issues, rather than individual problems.

I believe we have begun to see mental health and happiness in this light.  The rise in violence in our culture, most dramatically seen in the incidents of school shootings, have gotten our attention. This along with the alarming trend in suicide among our troops, and the quiet desperation experienced by much of our population are certainly indications of a problem.

We are experiencing a growing awareness that there is a significant portion of our population who are being “treated for a disease they don’t have with a drug they don’t need”, quoting Dr. Wm. Glasser.  The high incidence of depression and anxiety conditions has provided a lucrative market for drug companies.  Unless there is a diagnosed organic disorder, most of these brain drugs simply treat the symptoms without treating the underlying cause.    Is the underlying cause of these conditions a lifelong “mental illness” or an unsuccessful effort to cope with the challenging circumstances of life?

ken-piecesI have not found a simple “one size fits all” answer to the question of mental health and happiness.  I do believe strongly that we need to think about the mental health of the individual in the context of relationships as well as in the context of the social and physical environment.

I see health, (mental health, physical health and spiritual health) as more than the absence of disease.  There is no absolute state of health.  It is best to think of health as a process, a journey if you will.  This process is primarily about integration.  The coming together of the components of life into a functioning whole.  Our words for “health”, “whole”, “holy” all derive from the same root word in old anglo saxon “hal”, which means “whole”.  This move toward health and wholeness is the process of linking the parts of our self with our connections with others and our social and physical environment.  This coming together of parts, this “integration”, is what I call “health.”


Dialogue or Diatribe?

Dr. Ken Larsen

The world is divided by those who think they are right.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”  This familiar quote from Gandhi is an invitation to make our world a better place.  There is a parallel saying and that is “let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”  Like the Miss America contestants, we all want peace in our world.


I suggest that the absence of peace is conflict.  While there is little I can do about global conflicts, there is a lot I can do with the conflicts in my relationships.  One place to start is in our conversations with one another.  Dialogue is the free exchange of ideas and experiences.  It is a chance to see the world through the eyes of the other.  The most fundamental element in dialogue that leads to mental health and happiness is to make understanding the foundation.  Too often interpersonal communication ends in disagreement and conflict based not on understanding, but on a lack of understanding.   Each person in the dialogue has a legitimate point of view.   If one tries to deny the experience of the other and try to control the other to see things his way, we have a serious breakdown in the conversation and in the relationship.  If we agree that disagreement has no right to take place until understanding has been achieved, we are making progress.  It’s OK to “agree to disagree” but in order to have any integrity it is important that each person understands the point of view of the other before moving into disagreement.

Dr. Glasser talked about “external control” as a major contributor to conflict, unhappiness, and breakdown in relationships.

The way we circumvent external control is to recognize that I can only control my behavior.  When I slip into seeing my point of view as correct and the other’s point of view as wrong, we have a problem.  This may result in an “Archie Bunker” kind of diatribe against the other, insisting the other is wrong while you are right.  The result of this behavior is a growing hostility and enmity toward the other.

I mentioned earlier that there is little I can do about global conflicts.   But, if I understand the value of dialogue as a way to see the world as the other sees it, maybe I can have a small impact on what is going on in our world.  If I recognize that the diatribe often associated with condemning the other is based on ignorance I can make an effort to become informed.  I can seek to see the world as the other sees the world.  And in that process, maybe I can find a common link that we can build on.

In my own life, I have made an effort to get to know others who are different from me.  With respect and healthy curiosity I have found truly delightful opportunities to see the world through the eyes of people from other cultures and background.

We know that our attitudes and behavior toward others is based on our experience and beliefs about the other.  When we allow our beliefs to be formed by the unexamined opinions spoon fed to us, we have given away something of ourselves.  When listening to a media report on the “news” can we ask ourselves the simple question, “Is this true?”, or is it pre-digested propaganda that we have accepted without question?

In our relationships and in our world, there are differences.  That is what diversity is all about and it is good.  There is also common ground that we can use to build bridges between us.  Let’s build some more bridges.

For a short two minute video illustrating these principals click here


I know what I’m saying…..I’m not sure what you are hearing

Dr. Ken Larsen

We know that relationships and being connected pleasantly with others is essential to our mental health and happiness.

There are many ways that those connections hold us together.  There is the loving glance, the friendly smile, the intimate embrace….and, perhaps the most common link, the words that we use to communicate with one another.

I had a recent experience with a longtime friend.  I had loaned him a book that I valued.  He returned the book dismissively, stating in what appeared to be a disdainful manner, “poorly written.  Didn’t read it.”  I had also shared a video clip of an English speaking Asian that I thought was meaningful.  He emailed me back, “only watched a minute.  Couldn’t tolerate the accent.”

hearingI asked him, “do you know how negative you sound?  You must be missing out on a lot that life has to offer.”  His response, “not being negative.  Just being honest.”

The best response I could think of was pretty lame.  “OK.  Thanks.”

What do you think the chances are of me sharing anything with this guy again?

If I could step outside this situation I would recognize that perhaps this guy really wasn’t interested in what I was sharing.  How could he be honest in telling me that without taking the risk of placing a barrier in our relationship?

I have to look at my own behavior in this situation.  Someday I hope to be able to work this through so that I can communicate a bit more of a loving response.  Even now, I want to resist any resentment I feel and move into a more understanding approach to our relationship.

I think we must be honest with one another, but I also recognize that honesty without understanding and compassion can be perceived as hostility. 

I once heard a preacher pray  “Lord, help me today to make my words sweet and tender.  Tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

In our verbal connections with one another, let’s help maintain our mental health and happiness by using words that include a message of care and respect along with our honesty.



Perception is Reality….really???

Dr. Ken Larsen

A friend of mine is the news anchor for a Midwest TV station.  She was interviewing me about how our brain processes our sensory experience.  At one point she reported that it is a common understanding that perception is reality.  I think many of us believe that that is true.

A firm grasp on reality is kind of important to be mentally healthy.  However, there was something unsettled in me about simply accepting that “perception is reality.”  What came to mind is the old Philosophy 101 question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, is there a sound?”  The answer of course depends on how you define sound.  That same answer can apply to how we define “reality”.

How much strife and conflict have come to us because of not understanding what this picture illustrates?

Many if not most disagreements are simply the result of “missed understanding.”   See how that applies to this picture.  Each of them is clear on “reality”.  It is the same thing for both of them.  Here’s the rub.  If perception is reality, then there are two “realities” which is clearly nonsense.

perception1What happens when they realize their only difference is point of view.  I can imagine them sharing a laugh together and instead of a conflict, they would come to a deeper understanding of each other.

This is a two minute video I did with some friends a couple of years ago.  It illustrates this point in a light hearted manner.  I have heard reports from people all over our country and from as far away as India and South Africa who have enjoyed this video.


By Dr. Ken Larsen

I’m color blind.  Really.  I didn’t find out until, as a senior in High School, I received a congressional appointment to the Air Force Academy.  When I took the physical I couldn’t read those numbers you’re supposed to read on the dotted chart.  So I became a dentist instead.

Years later, when my kids were in their teens, one of them asked me, “Dad, what’s it like to be color blind?”  I thought about the question.  It was a very interesting question.  I replied, “I think what you’re asking is how does being color blind compare with not being color blind?  Well, since I’ve never looked at the world through anyone’s eyes but my own, I can’t really say.”  We were all quiet for a moment, and then heads started to nod as the meaning of what I had said sunk in.  It was a valuable lesson for all of us about how each of us has a unique view and perception of the world we live in.  We really can’t know how the world looks through the eyes of another.  We can talk about our experience.  We can listen to the ways others see the world and share those experiences in dialogue.  If we do this with respect and interest and healthy curiosity, we can form bonds of understanding and perhaps even friendship. 

Dr. Glasser has pointed out the disparity between our technological progress as a society and our ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships with one another.  Our technological prowess has soared over the past couple of centuries, yet, Rodney King’s simple plea, “Can we all get along?”  stands with Dr. Glasser’s comment from his book “Choice Theory” that “…we are no more able to get along well with each other than we ever were.” 

One of the big reasons we can’t get along is our failure to realize that there is more than my way to view the world.  This little lesson about being color blind has been insightful for me.  Our mental health and happiness is enhanced as we realize that we all see the world differently.  If we can stop contending over whose perception is the right one, we can begin to receive one another as gifts rather than as problems to be overcome.  My view of the world is enhanced by sharing with you.  You are going to see things that I don’t.  When I look at your perspective as adding to mine, we both grow in understanding, and maybe even grow closer together.

Which view of the helix is the “correct” one?

helix1 helix2