How to revive the lost art of listening

They say that the loss of the sense of hearing is the most isolating of all possible sensory losses. Having watched sight-impaired people happily chatting with the companion who is helping them to cross a street, and then noticed the withdrawal of hearing impaired people as others around them animatedly converse, I would agree. But for many of us, even though the mechanics of our hearing mechanism work, we still don’t use this precious sense to its fullest.

How many times are we engaged in a conversation and find that our thoughts are actually elsewhere? We watch the other person talking, maybe even nod at times we feel are appropriate, but our minds are somewhere in the past or future, usually in a completely different location and with different people. At other times, we’re really just waiting until we can say what WE want to say, which is, of course, something much more important or interesting than what the other person is telling us.

What most people really want in life is to be seen and heard – for who they really are and what they really think. When we truly listen to another person, we’re doing just that.

Listening is the first and most important step in human communication.

Coaches talk about three levels of listening. In level one, we are mostly aware of how the person’s comments affect us. If they are talking about their dog, we think about our own dog, or perhaps the neighbors’ dog that barks and keeps us up all night. In level two, we focus intently on the person’s words and their message. When we are engaged in a deep and meaningful conversation, hanging on every word of the person across from us, we are usually listening at level two. At level three, we feel what the person’s tone of voice is saying and we notice the changes in the mood, the spaces between the words and what’s not being said. We might comment, “you suddenly became quieter – what’s going on?”

In both his leadership and parent effectiveness training programs, Dr. Thomas Gordon teaches the art of “active listening.” This involves naming the underlying emotion expressed by a person’s words. For instance, if your spouse exclaims, “Why am I always the one cleaning up around here!” you might reply, “You’re irritated that no one else seems to care about having a clean house.”

While these sophisticated communication skills require training and practice, there is one thing that each of us can do to immediately take our communication to a higher level.

We can become curious.

I think that curiosity should be considered the eighth wonder of the world! It’s rare, has great significance and incredible impact. By becoming curious we often find out something important that allows us to modify our behavior in a beneficial way. Curiosity is also the antidote to judgment. If we find ourselves feeling critical of someone, we can get curious. Why did they do that? We frequently find a new perspective on the person or their actions that allows us to experience more acceptance, or at least a better understanding, thus strengthening our connection with the other person and relieving us of the discomfort of feeling judgmental.

In conversation, curiosity manifests in the simple act of posing a question.

Next time you’re in a conversation with someone, rather than focusing on constructing your next witty remark or wishing you were talking to the new person who walked into the room, get curious about what the person is saying. Then ask a question to clarify or develop a deeper understanding of what they’re telling you. As you do this regularly, you will feel greater interest in your conversations and the people you talk with will experience your listening presence. That’s really all it takes to revive the art of listening – just one question. The effect on your communication and relationships just might astonish you.

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About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
This entry was posted in building relationship with patients, effective communication in healthcare, physician communication, physician fulfillment and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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