Listen up!

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation (circa 1935)

Have you ever been talking to someone and had the feeling that they were just waiting for a pause in your narrative so they could jump in and start talking about themselves? Have you ever been interrupted in mid-sentence ? Have you ever had the feeling that the person you are talking with is completely bored by what you’re saying? Have you ever revealed something personal and important to you, and then told that you were completely wrong about it or that your listener had had that exact same experience and this is what you should do?

I’m sure you have. We all have. It’s called relationships.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, other than the fact that we will all die someday, it’s that everyone wants to talk about themselves. If you can really listen — listen so people feel heard — your relationships will be much deeper, stronger and healthier.

Listening and communication were an important part of our hospice volunteer training. We’ll spend a lot of time just hanging out with patients, and it’s important that we’re comfortable both in silence and in listening. We will develop a relationship with these people, no matter how short, and we really don’t want to burden their precious last days with our own agendas.

Your Uncle Bob was a fisherman? What a coincidence! I also have an Uncle Bob! Let me tell you all about him!

Maybe Uncle Bob was the patient’s favorite person on earth. Maybe Uncle Bob was a child molester. Chances are the patient only brought up Uncle Bob because it was important for some reason. We’ll never know now, will we?

Good listening skills can be learned. There are tons of websites for guidance. But before a single word is spoken, before you’re actually listening (or not), it’s important to think about where you’re coming from.

Are you really interested in the other person? Are you curious about who they are? Are you open to hearing anything, and not passing judgment on what comes up? If you’re not, then just stop. Go clear your head and come back later, when you are.

A friend told me the other day about a life-coaching workshop in which one of the leaders, a therapist, said, “people’s lives are so achingly boring.” Yes, you read that right. A life-coaching workshop.

Not only is that therapist most decidedly in the wrong line of work, but she is also just dead wrong. People’s lives are fascinating. No two human snowflakes are alike. I have never met a single person who has led a boring life. I love finding out where people have come from, what they care about, what they think about, what they do with their time. Not in a voyeuristic or snooping way. I’m just genuinely curious. I think this kind of curiosity is necessary for being an effective listener.

If you haven’t encountered the photoblog Humans of New York, crawl out from under your rock and check it out. Judging from its almost 13 million Facebook followers, people find these glimpses into other people’s lives compelling. It’s just a photo and a single quote or anecdote. No names. The photographer does about 4-5 interviews a day, and no two have ever been alike. They are all fascinating.

Why do these people to open up like this to a total stranger?

Well, first off, he’s not talking about himself. He’s honestly interested in the other person. He has no preconceived ideas about who he’s talking to. And he asks open-ended questions.

Okay, so that’s the background. Start there. Be genuinely interested in the other person. Here are a few other things that help:

  • Pay attention to the other person’s mood and body language. Smiles and eye contact signal you’re making a connection. If they avert their eyes, or withdraw, respect that and shut up. Probably make an exit. Just because you’re interested in them doesn’t mean they want to talk with you.
  • Ask questions if you’re stuck. The HONY guy asks people what person had the biggest influence in their life, or what their biggest struggle has been. Those are kind of OMG questions, so you might be more comfortable with little ones. You can ask a person to rate their day on a scale of 1 to 10. Or what they had for lunch. Notice a piece of jewelry, a photograph in the room, and ask about it. You’ll provide an opening for their story, and then you can wiggle in and follow it as it unfolds with more specific questions.
  • Keep your own agenda in check. You don’t have to agree with someone to listen to them. You are not obligated to set the other person straight. This is particularly important when people tell you about their problems, and you’re wanting to give advice. You may think you see clearly what they need to do to get out of whatever bind they’re in. Trust me, you don’t. Don’t even say “Well, if it were me, I’d… (throw the bum out, tell her where to shove it, call her and say I’m sorry, etc).” That’s not really helpful, because you are not them. That’s the whole point. Just listen.
  • Take a break from being you and imagine what it might be like to be that person, in that body, with that history. When you do this, you might find that specific questions come immediately to mind (you are not them, after all, and there is always missing information). What did you do then? How did that go over with your mom? You might even find yourself saying something actually comforting and non-judgmental, like Man, that must have been frustrating. This is otherwise known as “being empathetic.”
  • Learn to be comfortable with silence. Sometimes it takes people a while to summon up the courage to share what’s on their mind. Sometimes, like in a hospice setting, they don’t feel like talking at all, but they want some company. If you’re always jumping in and filling up the empty spaces with words, you’re not helping. Silence can be uncomfortable, but if you’re relaxed, it’s a lot easier for everyone. It helps to practice. The next time you’re talking with someone, and they’ve said something that you are just dying to react to, just shut up instead. Think about what they said, let it really sink in. Don’t say anything for the space of at least a couple of deep breaths. Imagine your heart opening up and embracing the other person. You might be surprised at the reaction from the other person. You might also be surprised at your own reaction, that you don’t really need to say what you thought you did after all.
  • If there’s a connection, if something in the other person’s story resonates with you, and it feels right, by all means mention it. Tell them how their story resonates with you. It is comforting to know that we don’t exist in a void, that our stories can touch other people. It is from our common experience that we build relationship, after all. If the person needs an impersonal, reflective sounding board, they can pay a therapist. You’re not a therapist, you’re another human being. Just please be careful not to hijack the conversation and make it all about you. Bring it up, then let it go again.

Sometimes, listening doesn’t even involve language. The other day at my other volunteering gig, a woman sat up and beckoned me over when I entered her room. She was agitated, going on and on in another language about something that was clearly distressing her. I tried to explain that I didn’t understand her, but that didn’t seem to matter, so I just sat down on the bed and listened. I tried to imagine what she was saying. Maybe her good-for-nothing son wasn’t coming to visit. Maybe the nurses didn’t understand that her tea had to be hot, not lukewarm. I nodded sympathetically. That’s a bummer, I said, shaking my head. I put a hand on her shoulder. I’m sorry you’re so upset. After a few minutes of this, she settled down. I squeezed her hand, stood up, and waved goodbye. Thank you, she said. In English.

There’s still a lot I need to learn. I’m still a little uncomfortable with silence, with just tapping into energy rather than words. I talk about myself much more than I need to. Sometimes eye contact is awkward. But I enjoy practicing, because I get to hear so many interesting stories in the process. And I am constantly humbled and reassured by the many unexpected ways in which our lives interconnect.

I am really leery about blog posts that give “advice”, and I hope this hasn’t been preachy. I have very little actual experience in the hospice setting; I might be completely wrong. Time will tell, and I’ll update this if I’m off base. I’d love to hear about what has worked for you, and what hasn’t. Have I missed anything crucial? Let’s start a conversation.

UPDATE: Reading through this after I hit “publish,” I realized I left out a crucial thing. Trust. Don’t ever share the content of a conversation unless you have the okay of the other person. Gossip ruins lives. If you think a third party really needs to know about something you’re listening to, mention your concern. The person might well make the connection herself. Otherwise, it’s none of your business.

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