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Becoming a Better Listener

In my first year of med school we learned all about how to effectively communicate with patients. One of the tasks we were given was to become better listeners. There is some statistic out there saying that most doctors interrupt their patients in less than 2 minutes, usually before the patient has finished saying what they have to say. This is bad practice because it makes patients feel like the doctor is not really listening and that what they say doesn’t matter: it is not a good way to build rapport and trust with a patient.

Since learning about this, I have tired very hard to become a better listener, not just when I am with patients, but also with people in my everyday life. I know I have gotten better at biting my tongue when I am about to cut someone off, so I figured that I was making some good progress. But,then I read my one-a-day calendar today, and it said:

Become a better listener. Effective listening is more than simply avoiding the bad habit of interrupting others while they are speaking or finishing their sentences. It’s being content to listen to the entire thought rather than waiting impatiently for your chance to respond.

I was completely taken aback as I realized that, perhaps, my efforts are not as great as I thought. Just a little earlier in the day, before I read the calendar, I was having a conversation with someone about something that was relatively unimportant. Small talk, if you will. They said something that made me want to cut them off and respond with a similar thought or comparable anecdote from my own life; but, I stopped myself. However, I didn’t really continue listening to them because I was too busy thinking about how I wanted to say what I wanted to say. This person kept talking for a little while longer and I finally tuned back in to the end of their phrase, only to realize that the thing I wanted to say would no longer make sense in the context of what they were saying. Furthermore, it would probably tip the person off to the fact that I wasn’t actually listening to what they had to say: Clearly, the point I was fixated on and waiting to respond to was not the most important part of their conversation with me and I missed it entirely.

This isn’t the first time I’ve caught myself doing that, and I almost always feel awkward when I catch myself. However, reading this statement in my calendar (especially after it had just happened to me) served as a kind of reality check on my feeble and clearly inadequate attempts at becoming a better listener. Hopefully this means I will begin to try harder. I think, today, if I had continued to listen to everything that person was saying to me, I would have been able to effortlessly continue our conversation. Instead, I responded by awkwardly nodding my head and smiling, and giving some lame, canned response based on the last little part of the conversation that I did manage to hear. I have no idea how the person on the other side of my conversation felt as a result of my listening failure, but I sure felt like I was making a poor impression. Hopefully being more aware of this habit and focussing on not doing it will make a huge difference in improving my communication skills.

19 thoughts on “Becoming a Better Listener

    1. I agree! There is nothing wrong with wanting to share, but sometimes we have to put our own excitement aside to let other people be be excited!

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    1. No problem! I think improving communication should be at the top of everyone’s list. I can think of a handful of people who could sure benefit from it!

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  1. Small tip from me because I’m more of a listener than a talker — being one over the other is no bad thing, it’s part of how we tick — If you want to share something that relates to what they are saying before they veer off course to another topic, you can do what I call the polite interruption; i.e., “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but when you finish telling me your story, I want to share what I have about this current topic we’re on, too” (if you don’t know the person very well, I’d not recommend that). The alternative is to let them finish and when it’s your turn, affirm that you were listening by acknowledging what they finished up with, then bring up that you have something to share with them that went back to that previous topic. i.e., “Oh you’re right that is so bizarre. (maybe one more sentence about it here), but when you were telling me about (insert whatever) it reminded me (blah, blah, blah).”

    Hope that helps. Just sharing what I usually do.

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  2. Listening is probably one of those skills that we have always lacked and it is one of those skills that would certainly save lives if more people learned how to do so. Some people aren’t necessarily looking for a conversation rather just a real ear to talk into. I myself have been saved a few times and have saved some lives of my own just by listening and offering my honest opinion when it was needed. If everyone made an effort to be better listeners we would be living in a different world.

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  3. left a comment and realized i wasn’t logged in, Probably pop up anonymous maybe? Anyways good post and we really don’t have enough real listeners nowadays.

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