Talking and listening

Out of the blue I got an email from a young woman who had been a student of mine many years ago, when I was a palliative care psychiatrist in England. She was writing to thank me for teaching her the importance of listening to patients. Although ‘of course it seemed boring at the time’, later on she had realized its value, and wrote that ‘without knowing it you made a huge contribution to my life’.

I remember the student herself, but have quite forgotten our session on this particular topic, so was surprised as well as pleased by her message. It made me think about talking and listening as a two-way process which needs mindful attention on both sides.

Casual remarks can have a significant and lasting effect, whether hurtful or inspiring, whereas statements intended to carry great significance may have no impact on the listener at all. There is a Bach flower remedy, Heather, for those who talk incessantly about themselves and their problems whether their audience is interested or not.

Listening calls for just as much care as talking, for it takes patience and focus to really understand what another person wants to say, especially if you are bored by the topic or in a hurry to get away, distracted by noisy surroundings, or hindered by a hearing impairment or language barrier.

Cultural differences can cause misunderstanding. For example I find most New Zealanders speak in a literal and direct fashion, while English people favor more subtle nuances. Or as my husband put it: ‘Kiwis talk common sense when Poms talk rubbish’.

Talking includes ‘self-talk’ as well as conversing with other people. How often do we speak to ourselves in critical or discouraging ways instead of affirming ones?

And listening is not just about verbal communication. The maxim ‘listen to your body’ refers to the idea that physical feelings and symptoms may hold some kind of message. We can also benefit from ‘listening’ for the significance of life’s recurring patterns, synchronicities, and the inner voice of intuition. And from listening to uplifting music, and the sounds of nature such as breeze, waterfalls and birdsong.

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