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Listening to learn

The ancient art of not making thing worse

Unhelpful listening

When someone we are close to starts talking about an issue they are dealing with, we often listen to fix. We hear their first couple of statements and then start jumping in with advice. This is rarely helpful, if ever. Why do we do that and what should we do differently.

The other person’s state

When someone starts talking about an issue they are talking because they are uneasy. Unease makes it difficult to think clearly, so their thoughts and speech about the issue is likely to be somewhat muddled. If their thoughts were clear, then they probably wouldn’t be talking about the issue.

Our state

When are emotionally close to someone then we tend to get uneasy if they are struggling. So when the other person starts talking about how they are struggling we get uneasy. Unease is aversive and so we have an urge to fix the problem. We fool ourselves by thinking we are trying to help, but what we are actually doing is trying to reduce our own unease. That is why our suggestions are rarely received well. They are designed to make us feel better, not deal with the issue effectively.

Listen to learn

What is helpful is listening with the intention of learning about the other person’s experience, their thoughts and emotions, what they have tried and the results, and what responses they may be considering. Unless they are actively contemplating a destructive action, it is safe to simply listen.

When we connect in this way the other person’s unease decreases. As their unease decreases their brain works better and they think more clearly. This helps them come up with effective solutions to the problem, and if they ask for advice then they are more likely to accept it.

Listening to learn is hard because we have to tolerate our own unease without trying to reduce it by attempting to give advice. We can use the reset breath repeatedly to help us. Whenever we start to give unsolicited advice we can simply do a long exhale and pause. We then ask for more information or more ideas from the other person.

I like to call this kind of listening “the ancient art of not making things worse.”

Conditional Probability is Weird

I was thinking about conditional probability which refers to the chance of outcome A if condition B is true. We use conditional probability in medicine when we try to figure out how the results of a research study will apply to a particular patient.

Conditional probabilities are often tricky to figure out as they can be extremely counter-intuitive. What seems to happen is that any information contained in the condition can influence the probability, even if the information seems to have nothing to do with the question.

A famous conditional probability problem is the “Monty Hall” problem, which became famous when Marilyn vos Savant gave the correct answer. It was very counter-intuitive and she and received boatloads of critical mail a lot of it from people who claimed to have Ph.D.’s. Unfortunately for them, she was correct.

Here is another example of conditional probability weirdness.

I put the condition in bold. Notice how the condition changes the probability changes.

John and Susan have two children who are not twins. The probability that any child is a girl is 1/2.

What is the probability that both are girls? (No condition)

Answer: 1/4

What is the probability that both are girls if the older child is a girl?

Answer: 1/2

What is the probability that both are girls if one child is a girl?

Answer: 1/3

What is the probability that both are girls if one child is a girl with curly hair? Now curly hair should have nothing to do with the probability of the sex of the children. So we would expect the answer to be 1/3 just like in the situation above where one child is a girl.

But …

Answer: The probability that both children are girls if one child is a girl with curly har is between 1/3 and 1/2 depending on the frequency of curly hair in the population.

That is completely bizarre. It is so counter-intuitive that even after doing the math to get the result I wrote a program in Matlab to check and make sure it was correct. I’ll triple check my work and post if I find an error.

The “Have Done” List

For about 20 years I have been telling my patients to use a “have done” list, instead of a “to-do” list. Sometime during the day, usually near the end, they are to write down any tasks they completed or made progress on. The feedback has been extremely positive. People feel more hopeful and more energized from their “have done” list, and knowing what they have done helps orient them to what to do next. Its much less stressful than staring at a “to-do” list.

Apparently there is now some research support for this. The authors of the following article use a more structured process than I do. I simply ask people to write down what they have done, without planning to do something first. But I imagine their version may work too.

Site Revision in Spring 2019

I have not posted here for awhile because I am working on a couple of research articles, as well as developing apps and a training program. Those have been absorbing all the time and energy I have to spare and will continue to do so for the next couple of months.

After those projects are completed this site will be redone to include new material and to make it more organized. Thanks for your patience.

HRV Trace and Resilience Training

A short note to communicate why I haven’t posted anything in a few weeks.

I have been developing materials for the International Performance, Resilience and Efficiency Program , iPREP. They use scientifically based training methods to train law enforcement officers and first-responders to make more effective decisions under extreme stress. They are an awesome team and I am excited to be working with them.

I have also been working on an iOS app which just got approved by Apple. The app is HRV Trace and it uses data from a chest-strap heart rate monitor to augment stress-management and resilience training. HRV Trace is  being used by the iPREP team as a part of their training program.

I am working to catch up on posting.

Stop Doing Your Best

One theme this past week was hearing from people who are exhausting themselves by trying to do their best.

While the advice to “just do your best” is given by people who mean well, it can be a trap that drains our energy. Instead of doing our best we need to know how to pace ourselves.


  1. Do good enough at each task.
  2. If you can do a task good enough without doing your best, then do NOT do your best.
  3. If you really love an activity, then do your best at it.

If we follow rules 1 and 2 then we will have energy to follow rule 3.

Contemplation vs Rumination – Overview

This is a short video on two different types of thinking: Contemplation and Rumination. I describe each and give some suggestions on how to shift from rumination to contemplation. I will be using this for the classes I am teaching this week.

I am also uploading the audio if you want to download it.

Here is the transcript: Continue reading Contemplation vs Rumination – Overview

Permission and Advice

Another short post:

I learned a very simple rule years ago about giving advice, whether to friends, relatives or children. It is amazingly simple, incredibly effective, and really hard to stick to.  The rule is:

Get permission before giving advice or offering suggestions.

My experience, and the reports I get from the people I have shared this with, is that when we have permission to give advice then we are much more likely to be listened to. And if we are not given permission then by graciously keeping quiet we avoid wasting a lot of energy and annoying the listener.

This is a very hard rule to follow so the damage-control rule is:

If you gave advice without permission, apologize.

Regarding when to start doing this with children. Once when my daughter was 3 she was having difficulty putting her shoes on. I asked her if she wanted some help and she replied “I do it myself!!”



Reducing Pain by Creating Changes in Perceived Size and Shape of the Pain

This is another technique for reducing pain that involves changing the way the brain experiences the pain rather than distracting the brain from the pain. It seems to work best for neuropathic pain or chronic pain rather than acute pain.  In this technique we focus on how the perceived location and extent of the pain can vary with the intention of having our brain reduce the  size of the area that is feeling the pain, and perhaps moving it out of the body altogether. Over time our brain can become more skilled at reducing the extent of the pain and reducing the intensity.

Notes:  Continue reading Reducing Pain by Creating Changes in Perceived Size and Shape of the Pain

Pulling Breath Downward to Reduce Headaches and Neck Pain

I made this track specifically for a couple of my patients who are struggling with neck pain and headaches, to remind them of what we did in the office.

It teaches a somewhat unusual technique for engaging the abdominal muscles while breathing so that the neck and shoulder muscles can relax. That often helps the head and neck feel more comfortable.

If you are not one of my patients you are welcome to listen, but please do  not use it if it causes discomfort.