Family & Education

Why Good Listening Matters

Reading, writing—and listening
BY Penelope Burr TIMEMarch 15, 2022 PRINT

Speaking well seems to far outweigh listening well in our culture. Perhaps if we weren’t so intent on “being heard” and if we all practiced better listening skills, we might find more cordial conversations, and people jump to conclusions less.

There’s a multitude of categories for types of listening, including active listening, therapeutic listening, deep listening, full listening, critical listening—and the list goes on. Some schools place value on teaching listening skills, including business and health care programs.

Of note, in a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Making Time to Listen to Your Patients,” Dr. Rana Awdish and Dr. Leonard Berry advocate for communications curriculum to be taught to clinical and non-clinical staff in health care organizations.

“Actively listening to patients conveys respect for their self-knowledge and builds trust.” The authors wrote. “We must listen generously so that we nurture authentic, bidirectional relationships that give clinicians and patients a sense of mutual purpose.”

Most of us have felt at one time or another that health care practitioners have failed to listen to our needs and concerns. I can say this unequivocally, as I’ve been on both sides of the fence—as a patient and as a nurse—and have failed miserably at times as a palliative nurse. Part of my role in the ICU was to provide emotional support, and that takes time and patience. Sometimes in a hurry, knowing I had four or five more families to see, I would obtain whatever piecemeal information that I needed and move on. Shame on me.

Those practitioners who do actively listen to patients and families generate the highest regard and favor in their practices. People appreciate being heard.

Social Situations

How are these listening skills translated into social situations or personal relationships with friends? Have you ever been to a gathering and heard a conversation that goes something like this:

First speaker: “We’re tired this evening. My family just got back from a trip to Washington, D.C.”

Second speaker: “Oh, we took our children there when they were in fifth and sixth grades. Wonderful experience!”

First speaker: “Where did you visit?”

Second speaker: “Of course, the mall area, including the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial …”

Look how the focus shifted. Who’s the better listener? Instead of asking any probing questions, the second speaker immediately jumps to his or her own experience. It happens all the time. Maybe saying, “What interested you the most?” would have allowed the first speaker to share some thoughts.

Listening well takes practice—a lot of practice, in fact. Compare it to playing tennis. There are many times on the court when you know you should “follow the ball” or “move your feet,” but instead the body just doesn’t budge. You know intellectually that you should “go to the net,” but instead begin backing up.

Most of us know how to listen, but putting it into practice is another story. We tend to blurt out words and later realize that we should have asked a question or two to find out more about what our friend was trying to convey.

Being Present

Then there may be a time when words become meaningless and empty verbiage takes over. Sitting with a friend whose spouse is in the hospital may mean just being at his side and listening to him pour out his grief and fear about his wife’s impending death. Offering a tissue or a cup of water or coffee may be the best response. In these circumstances, one’s presence is perhaps the best form of listening.

Many years ago, I was sitting with a woman in the hospital whose husband had just died about an hour prior. As a hospice nurse, I had visited her for several days. Her husband had been unresponsive for two or three days, then died on their 50th wedding anniversary day. We were holding hands and she said, “Everyone keeps saying how sad that he died on our anniversary, but I am happy. I knew he wanted to make it to that day, then let go.”

I was thankful that she shared this thought and affirmed what she said. If I had gone to her and not listened, this conversation wouldn’t have occurred. I might have been asking, “Do you need a chaplain? Should we call the funeral home?” These are important questions that need to be asked, but sometimes just being present opens doors that we never expect.

Good Listening

On an even deeper level, it’s only when we still our minds that we can hear the anxieties and fears of a loved one talking with us. By focusing on their need, we can forget our own—at least for a moment. My husband and I each recently confessed that we’re sometimes guilty of “hearing but not listening.” If he has that blank stare or I’m looking at my phone, then there’s no real listening going on.

To reiterate one point: Good listening is a goal. We trip, fall, and fumble more frequently than not. Impatient to complete another’s sentence or move on to another topic, we interrupt (guilty!), thinking that we know what the other person is about to say.

Listening is a taught skill. Our schools teach reading and composition. They focus on oral presentations. Our media is talk, talk, talk. There are some excellent interviewers who do probe and listen, and I’m grateful for them.

Years ago, a common philosophy about listening was that “children should be seen and not heard,” along with “be quiet and listen.” A great deal of progress has been made by altering the teacher talks/student listens model to variations that allow student participation and engagement. Parents and teachers can enable children to become active listeners, ask thoughtful questions, and learn empathy. Even role-playing with children can teach them to take an interest in others.

Indeed, every person wants to be heard when conveying an experience, feeling, goal, or dream. No one wants to play the role of good listener all of the time and never be heard. There can be no “we” without an “I” and “I.” When we do take time to listen, it allows us to learn what someone else is truly trying to express. We then grow by learning about someone else’s experience, especially when it’s different from our own and offer a compassionate response.

Penelope Burr resides with her husband in Jacksonville, Florida. A lifelong seeker, she finds fulfillment through church, family, friends, and tennis.
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