By Mystie Johnson-Foote, MD, MBA
My aunt died last night. In the days leading up to her death, the family connected a lot. We talked to her and each other about life. My husband woke early one of these days with thoughts of my aunt and mortality. As we chatted about his thoughts he shared two impactful observations. One, whenever she was around, my sister and I “lit up”. The second was that she made him feel important. I confirmed his first observation. She made us feel important too. And we chatted about his second. I asked him what she did to make him feel important. He described his first interaction with her. “She placed her hand on my forearm, looked me in the eye and asked me about myself. She was intent, curious and was not distracted by other things.” I had observed this interaction and noticed that when she set herself up to listen, she was fully present in the conversation and, even when all of her children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and siblings were in the room, everyone respected the space she created and let them chat. She ended the conversation after a time by patting his arm two or three times then moved on. I laughed and shared with my husband that he likely spilled all of his deepest secrets during that conversation. She had a way of drawing information out of people.
This led me to reflect on the training that I received as a coach. We were taught the skills of Trust, Listening, Presence, Direct Communication, Powerful Questioning and several others. I don’t know how my aunt developed these skills, if it was natural or learned, but my coach training put labels on everything she did. We talk about listening as a skill for coaches, leaders and physicians. There is published information about how listening improves the patient experience and builds trust with employees. What does an individual actually feel when they are listened to?
To answer this question, one must first understand what happens when they listen. You listen at various levels during any conversation. First, to understand what this has to do with you. This level of listening allows for individuals to make similar connections to shared experiences and identify what they have in common. This first level of listening may shift away from self to the other person creating space to ask questions that draw out values and beliefs. With deeper listening, you are able to “hear” what is unsaid. Any conversation may go in and out of these listening spaces many times without either party being aware that it is happening. When you are aware of your own shifts in listening levels, you can intentionally spend more time listening more deeply. This means more time making the conversation about someone else, not yourself.
Back to that question, what does an individual actually feel when they are listened to? It’s actually quite simple. They feel respected and valued as a human being. Think about a time when you truly felt respected and valued. It could be with a parent or family member, your boss, friend or physician. What did they do? Did they talk about themselves or did you talk about yourself?
What do you do when you listen to another person? Are you fully present and listening? What keeps you in or out of the moment? How can you use this awareness to deepen your listening?
When I think about my aunt, she asked and paid attention to the response and asked more. She didn’t try to minimize another’s situation or fix it. She simply created a safe space to allow for what needed to be heard and respected it.
When my aunt listened, she conveyed respect … and love.