Improving Your Conservation Efforts

Improving Your Conservation Results

Socioscience and Conservation

The Socioscientific Arts of Avian Conservation Medicine

LoraKim Joyner, D.V.M., M.P.V.M., M.Div.

Abstract:  Socioscience urges human beings to become full global citizens in organizations attuned to ethical concerns. This emerging field helps veterinarians as conservation team members incorporate self and organizational development in the practice of medicine. . Specific tools of socioscience include those of social intelligence (psychology, religion, ethno-ornithography, communication skills, leadership and organization functioning), understanding avian nature (cognitive ethology), understanding human nature (anthropology, history, and cognitive/emotive functioning), and frameworks for respectful discourse across differences of view, identities, religion, culture, and experiences. Considering intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, veterinarians increase their capacity for healing themselves as well as the world


Diagnosis and prescribing treatment and care for nonhuman animals and habitats involves looking at the entire environment, including the humans in the family, barn, forest, or aviary. In the past, veterinarians gave little attention to the human role in care of the animal other than veterinary competence, obtaining clinical history, and follow through on treatment and compliance. Recently, the human-nonhuman animal bond figures more predominantly in consideration for the well being of the family, community, or business of mixed species, thus raising the attention given to human social and emotional health when working with other species. The emerging field of socioscience along with recent advancements in cognitive ethology, ethno-ornithography, conservation biology, and human neural functioning give greater credulity to the idea that the human component is a significant aspect of veterinary medicine. Human well-being matters in seeking the flourishing of veterinarians and staff as individuals, promoting greater organizational effectiveness, and providing leadership in addressing the moral and ethical concerns involving human and nonhuman animals. This paper explores the complexity of human nature and how the avian practitioner can use understanding of the human species to offer greater care for their charges, as well as to the humans in their spheres of influence.


Socioscience explained

Mark Twain once said, "The physician who knows only medicine, knows not even medicine."  Socioscience guides the veterinarian in knowing more than medicine. As a relatively newly developing education model, it strives to make full global citizens of those pursuing scientific professions. Originally this term encompassed science education where the focus is on development of students. In this paper socioscience also addresses the life long development and continuing education of scientists and practitioners of applied science, such as physicians and veterinarians.

Socioscience stresses morality and ethics as well as the interdependence between science, medicine, and society. It does this by considering the psychological and epistemological growth of child or adult individual, and the development of character or virtue.1 It focuses on growing the individual through relational challenges that focus on complex ethical situations and that involve science and human communities. Relational skills and growth are paramount because habits of mind may suffice for decisions and actions initiated by an individual, but do not suffice for real-life complex situations in today’s world where the veterinarian strives for flourishing of self, family, staff, nonhuman animal, broader communities, global society, and earth habitats full of other species. To arrive at the best possible decision or action, the veterinarian engages in situations that evoke collective decision-making through the joint construction of social knowledge. In other words, to fully develop an authentic understanding of the social issues, veterinarians, students, and other humans involved engage in challenging interactions that stress the pedagogical power of discourse, reasoned argumentation, explicit nature of science considerations, and emotive, developmental, culture or epistemological connections within the decisions and actions themselves.1

Part of this process draws on personal beliefs, individual emotive characteristics, and individual identity within a community, such as gender and ethnicity. To engage in discourse that tugs at emotions, core beliefs, and identities, mutual respect and tolerance of dissenting views must be supported for the development of more sophisticated learning. Under all levels of discourse, we must examine how power and authority are embedded in scientific and medical enterprises, such as privilege, class, gender, and ethnicity. To truly engage in a socioscientic approach to veterinary medicine, it follows that “buttons must be pushed, lines must be crossed, and sensibilities must be challenged.”2

Importance of socioscience
To care for our animals in the specific family or business unit, or at the natural habitat and societal level, veterinarians must become as adept in dealing with societal and political forces as they are with syringes and stethoscopes. Veterinarians need to understand the complexities of the societal problems their work impacts. I have witnessed this from my work in front-line conservation where human dysfunction and suffering cannot easily be separated from nonhuman animal well-being. Today’s scientists are no longer constrained simply by the laws of nature, as was generally the case in the past, but also by the laws and attitudes of the land. “For every scientific action, there is an equal and opposite social reaction,” therefore we do not practice veterinary medicine in isolation.3 

Additionally, we need to be cognizant of the aptitudes of our clients and others with whom we work. Veterinarians are called upon to teach life sciences for clients, for the general public really doesn’t understand the science, nor can it be taken for granted that university students grasp the basics.4 Scientists, which I mean to include veterinarians, must learn to communicate far more effectively with nonscientist audiences, and get involved with politics and sociology. Though there might be a gap in understanding science, veterinarians at no time should we dismiss the moral reasoning of nonscientists, for arguing on science alone will not win the day, or save a bird’s life. Using socioscience we open up the horizons from with which science and self are understood and this contributes toward the evolution of both.1

Furthermore, given the alarming status of birds in native habitats, the greater our “medical kit” for treating human-bird interactions, the more likelihood of success we might have as veterinarians on a conservation team. In the past there has been a disconnect between conservation biology and traditional ecological knowledge due to communication difficulties, cultural differences, and different epistemological origins (philosophical bodies of knowledge).5  Socioscientific rigor addresses communication, cultural differences, and different ways of knowing by looking at what we know and how we know it. 

Winston Churchill once said, “Americans will always do the right thing after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”  Let us do the right thing so as not to exhaust the earth of her rich biodiversity and her birds, or exhaust our families or ourselves. 

Socioscience methodology

Socioscience broadly involves presenting complex ethical case reports to a group of people as they reason and argue together about best possible actions. For avian veterinarians, we make space and time to speak of the ethical concerns in our profession and clinic. The moral reasoning and subsequent actions have three basic characteristics; rational, emotive, and intuitive which are supported and addressed during the conversation. If learning can be embedded in the context of where the ethical decisions are taking place, the greater the likelihood that the experience leads to the possibility of human development.  For example, veterinarians can discuss cases with colleagues, staff, and clients in the actual clinic, zoo, field, research, or conservation setting.

Rationality, emotion, and intuition:

Rationality in socioscience means knowing your science and the sociopolitical issues concerned. Understanding the basic science alone is no guarantee that one will use the science or a rational argument any more or less than others who invoke moral principles, emotions, or intuitions as the basis of their stance.2  Rational understanding however will contribute to argumentation practices (with self and with others) and promote character development and increase the likelihood of critical reflection.2  For instance, understanding evolution correctly is critical in the life sciences, and yet is often misunderstood by even students in the life sciences. Therefore it is paramount to include “explicit attention to how evolution can or cannot be used in the context of social dilemmas.”4  In our own situation, we need to know as much as possible about avian nature and each species’ evolved telos so that we can discern levels of suffering, pain, and discomfort as well as best practices for species survival. By telos I mean that humans and nonhumans have natures, genetically based, physically and psychological expressed which determines how they live in their environments. We are learning more and more about the intellectual, emotional, and social lives of birds and indeed, these scientific advancements have far ranging impacts on how we see and treat birds.

Emotive functioning means knowing your inner humanity based on your own experiences and physiology and how this impacts empathy, concern, and care reactions. Socioscience as a process requires both intrapersonal (relationship to self) and interpersonal (relationship with others) skills. One must continually hold one’s actions up for internal scrutiny to develop fully in conscience.2  This at no time means negating one’s needs and self interests, and does not diminish the virtue of prudence. Prudence is an early evolutionary behavior that links self interests to community interest, perhaps long before conscience, care, and empathy emerged in our ancestors. If we care for ourselves, we are caring for the whole community of mixed species.

Intuitive responses work at the “gut level” where there is a sense of righteous indignation when a certain line is crossed. To understand our intuition we explore our internalized knowing of culture and nature, and what it means to be human in a community of mixed species. We look at individual identity as a particular human within a particular cultural location, such as veterinarian, Buddhist, middle class etc. The hope is to change our identities ever  more towards seeing ourselves as active contributors to society with competencies and willingness to employ scientific ideas and processes, understandings about science, and social  knowledge (ideas about economic and ethical influences) to issues and problems that affect our lives.6

Socioscience holds rationality, emotion, and intuition as vital and helps develop them through interpersonal and intrapersonal dialog. By engaging in dialog we develop a conscience through the exercise of reflexive judgment, which in turns contributes to a collective social consciousness. This is necessary for the broad changes in understanding and decisions making ability in the realm of political negotiations to improve human and nonhuman lives.

Experiential learning:

Experiential learning is a learning and teaching method based on the “experience, reflection, action cycle” first articulated by Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire. This method encourages the participant to engage a number of different and often conflicting perspectives as they come to both an individual and shared understanding of a complex reality. Everyone has something to teach and to learn. As a tool for fostering lifelong vocation, this approach has proven dramatically more effective than exposing participants only to variants on the “correct” point of view.  The greater the shift from one’s original sense of reality, with those of other cultures and other species, the greater the learning possibility. Experience is defined as immersing ourselves in the reality of the marginalized, most vulnerable populations, which includes nonhuman animals. By listening to other people and dialoguing with them and preferably by living with them, as well as studying nonhuman animals and living with them, we gain new awareness and new insights about the issues at hand. According to Freire, learning happens best in community and it involves respect.

Reflection involves critical analysis and discernment of the issue or situation. In light of our individual understanding of the world, we think critically about causes and consequences of injustice and our individual place in the existing power structures. This is not a theoretical exercise but a process where emotions and thoughts are intertwined and influence one another. The outcome is always action, a change in behavior or policy that serves ourselves and the world.

Tools for Understanding the Human Realm of Avian Medicine

Religions, worldviews, philosophy and ethics ask, what does it mean to be human and what is our response to this understanding?   How we respond to these two questions come out of the mix of culture and biology, neither being determinant alone in how we approach community issues. Our approach then is to understand as much as we can about human beings in terms of both nature and nurture and use this understanding as best we can in reflection and action.

In making decisions and prescribing actions in science, personal philosophy and commitments can matter more than reasoning.1,7 Superficial reasoning is involved in all decisions, though more primary influences include personal values, factors related to morality or ethics, and social considerations. Therefore it’s important to know how your values were shaped and what moral or ethical code you might follow based on emotions, worldviews, and social location within a community.  In other words, even if a person knows basic science concepts, decisions still follow an amorphous branching path that is difficult to navigate. Indeed, informal reasoning can preclude consideration of scientific knowledge.1   By examining all sources of what and how we know, we come closer to contributing across a wider spectrum of concerns. As Socrates said, an unexamined life is not worth living, and in an avian veteriarian’s case, an unexamined life risks taking actions founded on assigning less worth to other living beings, including one’s own self.

Religion and worldview

Moral learning takes place within an operating presence of the “sacred.”  This does not imply any religious understanding, only that in everyone’s world there is a sense of the sacred. When nothing is sacred there is no sense of outrage, moral indignation, or that someone has “crossed the line.”  Of course, the sense of sacred can come from religious orientations. Religious texts, traditions, and beliefs may indicate the moral principles under which a given individual operates, although variability and personal choice exists within every tradition, therefore meaning and action dependent on one’s religious orientation or world view is difficult to correlate. All world religions and worldviews exist in cultures that harm humans, species and habitats. To date, no research exists to indicate if one religion is superior to another in guiding moral concern for nonhuman animals and the environment, although current studies are underway

“Lived Religion” is a new understanding of religion that is descriptive rather than proscriptive. In this way, religion is looked at from the point of the way it is practiced and lived in every day situations rather than from a prescribed, hierarchical model based upon tradition or power accumulation in organizational structures. Lived religion in some ways is a folk religion that is made up of individual voices and how they find and make meaning in their lives as they answer these two questions: what does it mean to be human in communities of mixed species and what is our response to this understanding? Clearly an overarching affiliation with a religious institution or cultural religious orientation has an impact, but is not the final answer. Many could look at veterinary medicine as lived religion, as well as bird watching and conservation. Where and how in these realms of social interactions do people make and live out meaningful lives? 


To find out how cultures negotiate meaning, researchers engage modalities in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and history. Through studying history, we can develop a conscience just not for current birds and future birds, but for people and birds of the past. As we look back over the long history of human/nonhuman coevolution, we grow in empathy and understanding for those who went before us, and hence know more of who we are today, and who we can become.

One social tool is the growing field of ethno-ornithology.  Ethno-ornithology is the study of the relationship between birds and people. It is a branch of ethnozoology, which in turn is part of the wider field of enthnobiology. “It is an interdisciplinary subject and combines anthropological, cognitive, and linguistic perspectives with natural scientific approaches to the description and interpretation of people’s knowledge and use of birds.”8

Ethno-ornithography presents the results of a holistic research method founded on the idea that a system's properties cannot be accurately understood independently of each other. To understand a community’s understanding of birds and human relationships, the observers embed themselves into the community and decipers there own as well as species’ undertandings, culture, and presuppositions while interacting with people and their birds. Though no work is yet forthcoming on birds and avian medicine communities, the practice of looking for how meaning is coveneyed and acted upon occurs everywhere in modified fashions as humans try to work across language, culture, species, and meanng divides. Methods for conducting rapid ethnographic assessment include observation, key informant interviews, and group discussions. A rapid assessment enables researchers to grasp social issues in depth that may be understood through quantitative survey. (Family Health International.  Rapid Ethnographic Guide. Available at: Accessed February 10, 2009) Applied ethno-ornithological research is starting to play an increasingly important role in conservation practices.
Human as emotional animal9

Understanding human’s emotive functioning guides us in discerning how we reason and interact socially. From earlier ape ancestors, humans inherited complex emotional responses hardwired to help us form social attachments and engage in care giving. The need for social attachments helped us not only raise our young, but offset the biology of earlier apes that leans towards freedom, autonomy, individualism, and ego. 10 While the earlier ape biology was successively adaptive to living somewhat individually in a subarboreal niche in the forest, this way of living proved impractical as ape species radiated out in the Africa Savannah. There, human ancestors needed to support one another in complex social relationships so as to maintain social cohesion and reciprocity to combat predation and secure food. To grow in social complexity they also grew their ability for complex emotions. Since humans are hardwired for complex emotions, they are primed to form attachments in a large variety of forms, including those far from one’s base family and community and extending out to other species. In tension with this desire to form attachments is the individualism and ego of ape evolution, which influences any care situation such that the humans are also primed to seek benefits for themselves alone and to eschew community, including community of mixed species. Contrary to this, is the long evolution of human’s reliance, connection, and love of biodiversity. We have developed an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes”10 and can respond to nonhuman animals with a sense of kinship and awe. This appreciation of life and the living world is known as biophilia. In the case of birds we call it ornithophilia

Overlaying this evolved neural (limbic and cognitive) network to form attachments, is the capacity for culture to guide human moral concerns. This is in part because humans have evolved to use rituals to mobilize emotional energy for the benefit of community. In other words, rituals found in community gatherings, such as those in religious traditions, guide behavior for adhering to ethical codes and community taboos and strictures. Furthermore, the use of negative emotions such as guilt, shame, and fear developed for social cohesion, as did the use of positive emotions such as pride, satisfaction, and happiness.11 Based on the way humans evolved and the strong connection between the cortex and the subcortex, cognition or rational thinking partners with emotions, the limbic system, and subconscious thought-processing to impact our ethical codes and moral actions. In simple terms, a “low road” uses neural circuitry that runs through the amygdala and other similar automatic nodes without being conscious of it, and the “high road” sends messages to the prefrontal cortex where we can think about what is happening and intentionally impact our actions. The low road is always operating and indeed impacts all our decisions and actions. For this reason, a rational argument alone will not greatly impact human behavior, and indeed, rationality does not exist outside of the emotions that underlie our thinking.

Unfortunately research in the past has overlooked the role of affect and emotions in moral functioning.1  Recently we have learned that care, empathy, and other relational based concerns impact learning and decision making, as does having a sense of safety and comfort. For instance, in one study girls put safety and comfort of both the suffering parties and the scientist in the forefront of their decision making more than boys.1

Human as learning animal

Knowing how emotions impact reasoning is but one factor to consider in social interactions. Intertwined with how we feel, is how we learn, and understanding how these two dance together tempers our plan for intentionally growing our capacity for ethical engagement.

Neural functioning:

A recently discovered brain cell, the mirror neuron, senses both the physical moves another person is about to make and their feelings, and prepares us to imitate that movement and feel with them. Mirror neurons exist throughout our lives, ever adapting to the social cues around and how we might care for others. When our body mimics the action of another person, we have a greater sense for what that person, or nonhuman animal felt. We are able to do this not through conceptual reasoning (high road) but through direct simulation; by feeling, not by thinking (the low road).11

Another recent understanding is how our brains have an incredible capacity to grow and to heal, even as we age and after terrible trauma. 12   According to the theory of neuroplasticity; thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain's physical structure and functional organization from top to bottom. This means that we heal after emotional and physcial trauma to our brains and the potential to grow the ability to communicate, empathasize, and think is always present. This is rather a paradigm shift in our understanding of the brain and brings hope as scientists get closer and closer to designing protocls and strategies to grow and heal brains of all ages. In other words, we can always learn and grow in interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and understandings.

Humans and Nonhumans as virtuous animals

Virtue ethics combines a human’s ability to feel with the ability to learn and grow. This is because virtue-based ethical theories don’t rely on rules people should follow and instead focuses on helping people develop good character traits, such as kindness and generosity. These traits help people make better decisions that impact their lives and the lives of others. Virtue theorists also emphasize the need for people to learn how to break bad habits of character, and to grow in character development, a central aspect of socioscience.

Virtue ethics furthermore offers a rich accounting of emotions as part of moral decision-making, in contrast to the purely rational emphasis of most philosophical theories of moral behavior. Because of its allowance and highlight of emotion, we take a special look at virtue ethics in socioscience. Cognitive ethology that examines animal cognition, emotion, evolution, adaptation, causation, and development of species-specific behavioral repertoire, including virtues and vices, links our understanding of how humans make ethical decisions. For like other animals we evolved to act simultaneously for both self and community interests. We share behaviors and are “wired” for specific virtues that we have in common with other species. Shared virtues include in part: prudence, empathy, cooperation, compassion, kindness, altruism, and nurturance. By understanding how emotions shape moral behavior in other animals, and in ourselves as well, we come closer to being able to tweak and use our own human telos to our advantage and for the benefit of other species.

Tools for Growing Human Potential in Avian Medicine

Social intelligence (cognitive and emotional synthesis)

Social intelligence recruits our reality-based understanding of what it means to be human with all our emotional and cognitive gifts and burdens, and uses these characteristics in an intentional way to improve the quality of life for ourselves and others. We are strongly hardwired for relational learning, emotions, empathy, compassion, kindness, and for care and collaboration as well as competition. The more attentive we can be to the emotions and status of another person or animal, the more likely we are able to respond with greater care, in more ambiguous situations, and more quickly. To be more attentive to another person, we strive to understand them, as well as ourselves.

Verbal, paraverbal, nonverbal communication:

Researchers suggest that up to 90% of our communication is through paraverbal (tone, inflection) and nonverbal (hand and facial movement, body language). By watching others and ourselves we can more successfully ascertain their emotional state and the “sense” of what they wish to convey. Thus the more proficient we become at observing facial and body language clues, the better communicators we can become. We can grow in reading the unspoken rules of communication by checking out what we think the other person is saying or feeling by asking them.

Psychological types:

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is but one of many tools to help understand the diverse human. It is based upon Carl Jung’s proposed existence of two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions: rational functions of thinking and feeling versus the irrational functions: sensing and intuition.  These pairs can can be expressed in either an introverted or extraverted form. From Jung's original concepts, Briggs and Myers developed their own theory of psychological type, which places humans into 16 naturally occuring personality types based on these designations: ESTJ – Extraversion, Sensing, Thinking, Judging and NFP – Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perceiving

This tool proves helpful in organizations for developing understanding and empathy for the differences in the way people think and feel and how they operate in the world. In addition, it offers concrete tools on how to communicate across the differences. Practice tests exist at ( 

Family systems:

Within social units be they families, organizations, or clinics, there is a system of interactions that behave similarly across the spectrum of human communities. This family systems theory, introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as parts of emotional units. Families and other human relational structures, such as the Association of Avian Veterinarians, are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be understood in isolation from the system. Systems can suffer ill health if there are persistent and abundant triangles (going to other people to handle your interpersonal or intrapersonal issues instead of directly speaking to the person involved) and identifying individuals or subgroups as “victims to blame” when in reality they are merely showing the symptoms of an entire system that is unhealthy. Therapists and social workers can look at organizations and help you understand these dynamics and coach you through to higher functioning at the individual and institutional level.

Shadow self:

When we find blame with others it is often in relation to projection of our “shadow selves.”  We are primates of this earth, and we will always be looking at others and judging whether they are friend or foe, or whether our relationship with them will prove to our advantage. We need this to survive. Our native ability to survive turns destructive when we use this valuable discerning process into domination, violence, or negative judgment of the other.

Another version of “shadow” is that if we have a certain combination of gifts, it means that we will have “shortcomings” in other areas. For instance, perhaps you are quite empathetic with what others are feeling, meaning you can really see yourself in their shoes. However, this strong empathetic sense can lead to despair and depression as you become overwhelmed with the suffering of the world, or with the situation and health of patients and clients.

“Shadow” can also mean that there are realities of your life, experiences, and native orientation that you have not embraced, and that you judge as not part of you and “wrong.”  When you turn away from the deep knowing and truth of your own life, you “project” your own discomfort and self-judgment onto others, hence treating them as less than human or with less kindness and compassion you might otherwise. Humans can also project onto nonhuman animals, such as our terms “bird brain” where our judgment of impaired cognition is seen as a negative in both human and bird.

So many shadows lurk in our lives. In reference to that old radio show; “who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, the shadow knows!”  Indeed, such wisdom there is in this. By getting to know our shadows we can learn where the seeds of judgment, denial, and violence lurk, and shower them with our attention so that they grow into life giving understandings of ourselves. Abundant resources in counseling, therapy and self help exist to address the issue of shadow and projection.

Integrative intentional practice:

It is possible for the high road of cognition to impact our low road so that we can temper our initial more primal reactions to threat. When we are less threatened, we can work more compassionately and competently in human interactions. The orbitofrontal cortex modulates the amygdala and can act as an emotional brake in specific situations, and over time, temper the amygdala so that perceived threats do not lead to over action, disconnection, or withdrawal from social discourse. The corollary to this is that the prefrontal cortex can also stir the emotions, which can lead to fright or flight, and competition or collaboration. If an emotion persists in response to a stimulus after several seconds or a few minutes, such as in hours or days or even a lifetime, it is mostly likely spinning around in a cognitive loop in the cortex, which in turns stimulates the amygdala. Therefore, by watching our cognitive “stories” of who we are and “who is friend or foe” we can modulate our emotional reactions so that we can stay engaged peacefully and fruitfully with other humans.

There are also noncognitive practices that can change the emotional and neural circuitry to enhance our natural abilities to sense empathy and compassion for other species, and most especially our own. Such intentional practices fall often under the rubric of spiritual or religious practices. This includes a variety of activities such as meditation, prayer, journaling, nature walks, and bird watching.13 In recent years much research has been done on those who practice meditation to document concrete, physical changes in the brain.14  Research shows how meditation can shift cortical activity.  Writes researcher Richard Davison of the University of Wisconsin, “What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one. Increased activity in some areas and decreased in others leads to greater happiness, positive thoughts and emotions, which also mean these individuals are better at developing cognitive strategies for emotional regulation and are faster on emotional recovery.”  In addition meditation can improve health by reducing stress, decreasing blood pressure, decreasing pain, improving healing and immune functioning, and tempering substance abuse. 

Communication tools

Compassionate communication:

Compassionate Communication, based on Marshal Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication theory
 emphasizes honesty and empathy in interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.15 Through practice it too leads to shifts in thinking and emotional responses.  It is based on the understanding that human beings operate best in social groups when they receive empathy.  Greater connection and rapport between individuals, so paramount in social discourse, happens if language used and even deeper consciousness reflected in body language, is founded upon the idea of universal needs and not on judgment, blame, or domination to get needs met. Instead empathy through deep listening, authentic sharing of needs and feelings, and clear requests suggest the best strategy for people to come up with creative solutions where everyone is heard and has their needs considered, as well as the needs of nonhuman animals. Turner develops this theory by developing concrete ways that people can transact through the medium of needs to produce positive emotions and commitment.16

Listening as an ethical art and empathetic discourse:

Full listening helps us attune to others and their internal states. By stilling the cognitive loops and chatter that go on inside of us, we come to attentive recognition of what another is feeling, and have a greater chance to understand them and offer empathy. When another person feels heard and receives empathy, they in turn are in a better place to listen to you, as well as to recognize their own emotional state without it being overridden by concerns of threat from without.

Transformational reasoning occurs when one can clearly internalize and articulate the thoughts, arguments, or position of another. This is because one’s reasoning becomes integrated with that of another.1 In socioscience processes, we begin with the presentation of controversial science/medical case studies and then participants take turns arguing various viewpoints.1 It is important to repeat back what one has heard and to argue the case you don’t agree with. In this process of “pretending” to take the other side, one actually gains in empathy for other positions, and grows in sophistication with one’s newly acquired and more integrated ethical approaches.  Participants can also be urged to build consensus regarding the issue to further expand their abilities in discourse.1  

Organization and leadership tools

Socioscience also informs leadership aspects within organizations, including the health of the leaders and healers themselves. For instance, human physicians experience high rates of burn out and the number of malpractice suits is correlated to impaired communication and shorter patient visits. Spending time with staff and patients decreases the chance for compassion fatigue. Superb leaders in human services are not those with greater knowledge or technical skill, but those with highly developed interpersonal skills like empathy and conflict resolution.12  Medical staffs perform better when they feel they have a secure base to work from, such as an organization that operates with a high level of social intelligence.

Cutting edge business leadership models focus on empathy and deep listening within the organization to improve success. The shift is from producing results to producing the growth of people who produce great results.17  Success depends on both intrapersonal and interpersonal skill development. . In short, we must know the “inner abyss” that thinks humans are separate. 18  Individuals seek to know how they feel (open heart), observe objectively (open mind) and know that they are connected to something larger them selves (open will).18 

Successful businesses operate from “we must love one another or die” and seek transformation of the human heart.17  Love, with slippery meanings at best, is used in this context because of its complex neural connections that expands intelligence on many levels. Brains have a hard time being angry, fearful, or depressed if they are also curious and open to others at the same time. Curiosity comes from letting go of results, and instead concentrates on the quality of interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, playing, and just “being” as opposed to following a course of action based on a particular identity such as “veterinarian,” “clinic owner,” or “have lost my shirt in the stock market.”  Furthermore, wonder, curiosity and delight of discovery replaces fatigue and frustration.19

Organizations seeking success orientate towards serving all of life because the health of individuals means that they know that they are part of the whole of existence. Operating from this understanding results in collective and individual actions serving the whole world, which is perceived as “self.” Workers aren’t there for themselves, the clinic, or the current business or project, but for all of life as humans act with compassion, empathy, joy, creativity,  authenticity, and  meaning to produce at high levels of output. Life giving relationships are the powerful engine of successful organizations, so love, compassion, and empathy are great tools for increasing power in organizations. Positive emotions make a difference in a work place as do expectations and clarity of how we are to “treat one another” on a day-to-day basis. Practices that produce positive emotional encounters result in individuals with higher commitments to the organization. If the leader of an organization is highly visible and active within all levels of the organization, the greater influence the leader of higher status has to transform the organization.16   This is even more so if leaders “can walk the talk.” 

According to family system theory, Friedman emphasizes the power of “presence” in the leader of a family or an organization.20 “Presence” is the trail of confidence, poise, bearing, calmness, focus, and energy one leaves wherever one goes. The leader’s spirit, essence, and affective presence permeate an organization. Presence also has to do with emotional maturity, the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny and is the critical variable in one’s success as a leader.20   Leaders strive to manage triangles, persist in the midst of sabotage, be a nonanxious presence (and humorous too if possible), stay connected, be engaged and proactive (not reactive), and differentiate the self. Differentiation means people can handle their emotions with their social intelligence prowess without getting caught up in the maelstrom of emotions that may be going on around them. Also, one balances intimacy and autonomy.  If one wishes to change a family or an organization, one must speak for oneself, authentically, and not be dependent on the emotions and actions of others. If one person in an emotional system can be a little bit different over a sustained period of time, an organization can change. To be self-differentiated, however, entails using all the tools we can in socioscience.

Call to Action

Learning the socioscientific arts of avian medicine can produce activists; people who do all they can for what is right, good and just and who “refashion society along more socially just lines” and who will work vigorously in the best interest of the biosphere.1 Practicing medicine in the socioscientific framework increases our stewardship impact on our biological world.  I feel that every veterinary practice, zoo, wildlife conservation, research, farm or aviculture situation can be a microcosm of growing our lives as engaged citizens by using the tools mentioned earlier.  In particular we can:

  • Continue to grow in understanding avian nature. Birds’ emotional, social, and intellectual lives are complex as is our understanding of them.
  • Continue to grow in understanding human nature.
  • Continue to grow in social intelligence and use our understanding of human nature to direct human nature (are own and those we work with). This includes incorporating intentional practices that grow empathy and modulate emotions.
  • Make time for and support discussion of complex social questions. Veterinarians need support from one another, from interdisciplinary studies, and from professional development plans that aid in facilitating the dynamics of argumentation and discourse.1  It is not easy to tolerate ambiguity, and that is exactly what is called for in the realm of socioscience as we seek to make more informed and compassionate decisions. We need to hold moral forums at veterinary conferences, while holding each other in highest regard and under an ethic of care.  These forums should center on practical issues in local communities that affect every day lives.
  • Support ethno-ornithography studies of bird/human communities that include owners, veterinarians, indigenous cultures, conservationists, and veterinarians.

Conclusion:  Healing the Healers

Mahatma Gandhi once wrote “We must become the change we want to see in the world.”  Though Gandhi may not have known of today’s new science of quantum physics that speaks of radical interconnectivity or foreseen the tangled web of global communities and markets, he does speak to the ever more complex reality of global social and environmental dilemmas. From around the world we feel the call to hope through change, and it is becoming ever more clear that in no part this change begins with us.  As veterinarians we promise through our oaths, and in the case of the AVMA oath, to practice conscientiously and with dignity and to accept lifelong “continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.” It has been my hope that this paper may have added one small tool of support and hope for you medical bag of healing, for yourself and for our world.


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