There is a saying about listening that eloquently summarizes the nature of the process. The source of the words is unknown, but the message is universal – “God gave us two ears, but only one mouth. Some people say that’s because God wanted us to spend twice as much time listening as talking. Others claim it’s because God knew listening was twice as hard as talking.” And so it goes that listening is an important skill, but it can be so hard to do it well and so challenging to make it meaningful.
Why is listening important? If someone listens to another with full attention, conviction, commitment, and support, the speaker feels affirmed and important and has a sense of his/her value and the validity of his/her feelings, ideas, and experiences. Michael Nichols, PhD. underscores this when he says in his book, The Lost Art of Listening that “To listen is to pay attention, take an interest, care about, take to heart, validate, acknowledge, be moved, appreciate” (p.14). When one is accepted and recognized for who they are, one may feel freer to express their feelings and explore deeper and understand better who they are and how to make good decisions for issues they may be facing. Thus, a good listener can be a soundboard for the one who is speaking.
Effective listening can also give the speaker a sense of being understood for what he/she is feeling and experiencing. Being understood is a great source of support when a person may feel very isolated and in need of connection. So what does being a good listener entail? To accomplish the support, validation, and connection listening can offer, it is of vital importance to put the speaker first. Most of us listeners have agendas, whether it is to get our own ideas across, give our opinions for solutions to problems, be recognized for our own worth, have our own feelings acknowledged, or satisfy our need to give some support or encouragement that is superficial or not even rooted in reality.
But as Dr. Nichols succinctly puts it, “Listening means taking in, not taking over” (p. 83, The Lost Art of Listening). To be a good listener, one has to suspend his/her own agenda. Being a good listener thus means being fully interested in the speaker to the extent that one’s own self-interests are put aside. This includes any distractions that may get in the way of the speaker being heard, whether those distractions are in the physical environment or the listener’s mind. It means not interrupting the speaker, not interjecting comments, not thinking about what one might say next, not losing interest because the speaker’s content is dull or boring, not becoming annoyed or even hostile because you don’t agree with the speaker’s views, and maintaining eye contact and a body position to express engagement with the speaker. One must be fully connected with what the speaker is saying and how it is being said. Good listening requires being totally present and aware and keeping an open mind without judgment.
And finally, it is extremely important that the listener creates an atmosphere of complete safety and confidentiality for the speaker. That is the only way that feeling and thoughts can be shared comfortably, and the speaker can be free to be who he/she really is. Good listening also involves understanding the factual content of what the speaker is saying and clarifying information that isn’t clear. It may be helpful to paraphrase what is being said so the speaker knows you are listening and understand what he/she is saying. In addition, it is important to pay attention to the emotions and feelings the speaker is conveying by reflecting back those feelings with phrases such as “You must feel…” This may help the speaker be more aware of his/her feelings when hearing them mentioned by the listener.
Nonverbal communication, such as the speaker’s posture, demeanor, facial expressions, and voice tone may yield helpful information. Summarizing at the end what the speaker has said may help put everything in focus for the speaker and the listener. What is the role of healing in the listening process? Elizabeth Johnson Taylor mentions in “What Can I Say?” that listening itself is a “healing response” (p.25). In other words, it can be part of a person’s healing. When people feel listened to and heard, they can gain a sense of their own importance and that their lives have meaning and value. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. has frequently talked and written about “the power of story”. She has said that letting a patient tell his/her story is one of the greatest gifts one can give. Our stories are full of meaning for us and remind us of who we are. When someone listens to that story intently and with focus, we are validated. And supported by that validation, the speaker may discover a potential within to grow and heal wounds and successfully deal with challenging situations.
Sometimes when the listener reflects back to the speaker what the listener hears in the story, it can open up new avenues of thought or feeling for the speaker. It may inspire the speaker to look at his/her issues in a new way or examine feelings more intently and with new insight. This can lead to better self-understanding and self-acceptance. Just being totally free to express what you think and feel can be very healing for someone not used to such openness. Taylor also mentions in “What Can I Say” that “Listening lances the psychic wound so that powerful pent-up feelings can drain, and healing can begin” (p.25). In addition, Dr. Nichols points out in his book that when we are listened to we have an easier time of actualizing who we are. This could be a very important part of dealing with an illness where it is very easy to lose a sense of identity and a sense of self-worth.
And finally, active and attentive listening can result in healing connection, especially when one is isolated by an illness. By listeneing to another, one affirms that that person is not alone, and by that affirmation, the speaker can be brought out of isolation. There is such a need for human connection, especially in our modern society where everything occurs at such a fast pace, attention spans are shorter than ever, and the technology that connects us electronically also tends to make us feel more alone. Affirming a person’s thoughts, feelings, and life experiences by empathetic listeneing creates a powerful bond with that person that unites through the commonality of shared human experience.
In Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s workshop, The Healing Power of Story, she comments that the stories we tell each other and listen to reveal the truth about our human situation. We can see hidden connections between us. When you listen to someone and hear that person’s story, you are being let into that person’s life. This is a very intimate experience and a great priviledge and a great source of connection. Dr. Remen further points out that when we actively and compassionately listen to others, we can become aware that we are all part of a larger story and that underneathe the differences are many similarities. On the other side of the coin, what does listening do for the listener? Hearing what the speaker has to say can be enlightening for the listener. One can learn information that is helpful in promoting understanding between the two and strengthening the relationship.
Hearing what someone else has to say can make you more aware of your own story and enable you to connect better with yourself. It might allow you to see your own life through new eyes and change some of your behavior. Hearing someone’s story can be healing because similar and familiar experiences can remind the listener of a shared humanity. Listening to another can make one aware of what is sacred and spiritual in everyday life and how one can see the Divine in another person. We may be able to find meaning in our life by listening to another. And finally, we may gain a sense of our own significance and purpose by the power of our presence to another and the willingness to give the gift of our full attention for the benefit of a fellow human being.
Finally, how does effective listening contribute to the establishment of a good doctor-patient relationship or a good relationship between other health care professionals and the patient? First of all, focused and supportive listening can help the patient open up and convey important medical facts and express underlying significant feelings and emotional and spiritual needs. This process not only establishes trust between the patient and provider, but can assist the health care professional in obtaining important information that may facilitate arriving at a diagnosis or aid in the patient’s treatment. It would allow consideration of the total patient and the different needs, be they physical, emotional, and/or spiritual, that may require attention in the patient’s care. Careful listening helps build a strong professional relationship that leaves channels of communication open when new medical problems or personal challenges arise.
Active listening between family members and the patient can be very supportive and healing for both parties. If the patient is willing to talk about the illness and how it has affected his/her life, the associated fears, the hopes and aspirations, or unresolved issues or conflicts, then open and attentive listening from family members or friends can have a sacred nature that can bring all together and bolster the strength of the patient’s support system. If the patient is physically, emotionally, and spiritually able to listen to family and friends in return, topics previously deemed too difficult to discuss may be honestly brought up so that tension and anxiety can be lessened or even eliminated and more open and meaningful communication can take place. Patients and their families and friends can learn from each other about illness and how to respond to the changes that are happening. As a result, a mutually supportive system can be established.
So, listening is important, but it has to be open, supportive, selfless, caring, focused, non-judgmental, and meaningful. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen summed it up best when she said in her “Healing Power of Story” workshop, “When you listen, you offer a sense of belonging to parts of a person that have become homeless. And the refuge is not a hiding place, but a place to find identity and grow. Listening offers a place of refuge to a person from everything that diminishes them.”