The Importance of Listening

by Paula Schneider
Transform Myself Inc.

The author is a hospice and end-of-life care coordinator who trains organizations on Advance Directives and has facilitated numerous Death Café events – popular informal gatherings that explore the many issues surrounding death and dying. To date, there have been 7500 such events worldwide.

As a caregiver who works with other caregivers and the people they are caring for, I am always trying to improve on my listening skills. It is so easy to get carried away with the teaching part of my consulting duties that I forget to let someone else talk! When I first meet a patient and his or her family, I have a tremendous amount of information to impart in a short amount of time. I have to remind myself that listening to what they have to tell me is equally as important as what I have to tell them.

A study done by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital revealed the first physiologic evidence that humans are actually wired to connect with each other. Researchers studied 20 unique therapeutic sessions between a psychologist and his or her patient. And the findings showed that, during moments of empathetic connection, humans reflect or mirror each other’s emotions and their physiologic processes move on the same wavelength. Incidentally, in the study, an interesting finding popped up: there was more physiologic concordance when the therapist was listening than talking.

Paula article

I was excited to read this study because it reinforces what I have always believed about the importance of listening for caregivers such as nurses, doctors, family members, and others. When we listen, we are actually in sync with the other person and then the goals of hospice, which are peace and comfort, can be realized. If we as hospice professionals go in with an agenda and a laundry list of topics we need to cover without actually allowing the family to verbalize, we are missing the boat.

Active listening is a technique I learned in nursing school and have practiced for over 30 years, with varying degrees of success! When I use this technique, I attempt to recapture what the speaker is telling me by repeating it back to make sure I’ve heard exactly what they have said to me. It is always a surprise to find that I did not hear correctly, but over the years I have improved in my listening skills quite a bit. I do realize, however, that many times patients and families do not hear me correctly. This happens especially under moments of extreme stress. I have come to realize that as someone’s anxiety level increases, his or her ability to hear correctly decreases. That is why, in hospice, we frequently end up repeating things over and over. Until the patient or caregiver’s anxiety level goes down considerably, effective communication is not going to occur.

In working with people who are living their last days, a lot of teaching and listening takes place. My goal is always to listen better and correctly so that I can meet my patient’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. It’s not always easy, but with enough practice, I know I am becoming a more effective listener.

Reading this, we are encouraged by the empathetic interaction sought–after in hospice care. Empathetic interaction is engaging other(s) with intent to intuitively grasp their holistic being in order to cultivate a genuine connection. Empathetic Interaction is understanding through vicarious participation within the other. Moods, perceptions, desires, feelings, intents, ambitions―all are experienced by subtle inter-connectivity. It is the highest level of interaction.