Are You Really Listening?

Communicating is more than just expressing yourself clearly. It's about listening clearly -- paying attention and blocking out all the mental clutter and distractions.
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Communicating is more than just expressing yourself clearly; it's about listening clearly -- paying attention and blocking out all the mental clutter and distractions. When we were kids we learned to listen to our parents and teachers because we knew we would be in trouble if we did not listen. But somewhere along the way, perhaps as the number of distractions in our lives increased, many of us are not paying attention as well as we should. The disciplined kind of active listening that allows us to truly understand the information we hear in order to improve our decision-making seems to have fallen by the wayside. This is painfully true in the health care setting.

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate," is a famous line in the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke. It was recently used by Dr. Diane Meier, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care, in an article in Medscape Close Up. She spoke with Art Caplan, PhD, of Langone NYU Medical Center's division of medical ethics about listening. "A core element of training in palliative care -- that every clinician should get but hasn't -- is communication skills," Meier said. "Physicians think about communication as talking, but actually communication is much more about listening and about opening the conversation to things that are on the patient's mind but have not yet been articulated, have not been said out loud." Dr. Meier also considers body language of clinicians in the health care setting problematic. At a recent symposium on Communication and the Interpersonal Relationship within Palliative and End-of-Life Care, she said, "Sitting with your arms crossed, does not express to me that you are hearing me. Have open body language, lean forward, make eye contact."

There are more distractions than ever in our modern world. With all these distractions, we hear only a portion of what is actually being said.

"Even before the age of digital distractions, people could remember only about 10 percent of what was said in a face to face conversation after a brief distraction, according to a 1987 study that remains a key gauge of conversational recall," wrote Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. In an article about how to get the most out of a conversation, she continued, "Researchers believe listening skills have since fallen amid more multitasking and interruptions. Most of us can think more than twice as fast as the average person talks and this allows the mind to wander." She added, "Plenty of programs teach people how to speak, but few teach them to listen."

In Psychology Today, Mark Goulston, MD, wrote about what he learned from Doc Barham, CEO of Xtraordinary Outcomes, a company that identifies what makes individuals, or organizations extraordinary. "When you sit down with people what you first notice is people's eyes and then you look and listen into them for their hurt, pain, fear, anger and terror and when you do, they share whatever it is with you. And then they exhale, feel relieved and open themselves up to you. That is your secret sauce," Barham explained about communicating.

The late American Psychologist Edwin Shneidman (1918-2009), said "When you listen for the pain, hurt and fear in people, it is always there. And when people sense you doing that with no other motive than to alleviate all of those, they will lower their walls and reveal them to you." In a blog about the art of listening, Robin Dance said that he told his children "God gave you two ears and one mouth so you could listen twice as much as you speak." He believes "listening, active listening, is a dying art." He advises "putting down your phone, looking people in the eye" what most of us would consider common courtesy.

Perhaps we can find some help from Zen Master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Thich Nhat Hanh, who considers mindful listening life's most important skill. In his new book, The Art of Communicating, he reveals how to listen mindfully and express your fullest and most authentic self. It can help us move beyond the perils and frustrations of misrepresentation and misunderstanding to learn the listening skills that will forever change how we experience and impact the world.

Let's hope we can revive mindful listening. Otherwise, everything is just white noise.

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