to accompany and give back hope

Parish Nursing Bulletin



Learning to Listen

Listening is an art. We should be experts at it. After all, it is something we do every day of our lives. Unfortunately, in a modern urban environment where we are continually assailed by noise, most of us have perfected the art of not listening. If we paid attention to all the auditory stimulation we are subjected to, our health would quickly break down. For self- protection, we have trained ourselves to screen out unwanted noise. Good to a point, this practice can also "protect" us from hearing what is vital to our health and relationships. Reconsider the art of listening, and how and to whom we should really listen.

The "how" of listening involves time, attention and care. So often only half our attention is on any given conversation. The other half is on where we need to be next or what else we could be doing with this time. Even the half that is allotted to the conversation is divided; frequently we are concentrating so hard on what we will say next that we barely hear what the other person is saying. We miss the nuances that help us to understand the other's meaning. Listening for the tone of voice, the feelings behind the words, and for what is not said help us to really hear. Also, 70 - 80% of communication is nonverbal. So we must "listen" with our eyes as well as our ears. Discrepancies between nonverbal (posture, facial expression, etc.) and verbal communication are potent advisors of unspoken concerns. When someone says "everything's fine" in a glib tone but with a smile that doesn't reach the eyes, you will know that it's not. Responding "I hear you saying that all's well, but your eyes look sad" offers the other person the gift of your attention, and the opportunity to open up further if he or she wishes to do so. Even if you can't alter someone's situation, your willingness to listen can be a powerful source of support and encouragement.

To whom should we listen? To God, to those who are important to us, and to ourselves. A wit once said, "When you talk to God, it's called prayer. When God talks to you, it's called schizophrenia!". Too many of us are afraid of being labeled schizophrenics. We miss the point that prayer is meant to be a dialogue, so we fill our prayer time with words, leaving no space for God to talk to us. Yet the Bible contains many examples of God speaking to people, especially in the quiet moments. Elijah heard God, not in the earthquake, fire or storm, but in the still, small voice after the storm. Samuel heard God in the quiet of the night. Unless we allow ourselves quiet time, we have little chance of hearing the still, small voice. If you want calm amidst turmoil, strength when you are feeling exhausted, and help with choices and priorities, make regular time to listen to God as well as to tell Him your concerns.

Listening to those for whom we care deeply is an important key to keeping relationships strong and growing. Profound truths are often hidden in tiny, off-hand statements that are easily overlooked. A comment that someone who has been actively searching for work for several months is "a little discouraged" by the lack of job opportunities can hide a growing sense of uncertainty and despair. Strain that affects one member of a family affects all members as they try to support and compensate for the one who is struggling. Arguments become a common occurrence and relationships can start to deteriorate. Even familiarity can prevent us from really hearing someone close to us. We tend to relate to spouses, children and parents based on the image that we have formed of them. If Grandpa is usually loud and argumentative and Grandma usually talks nonstop without saying anything interesting, then we don't have to listen much to what they're saying. We already know roughly what they're going to say, so we prepare our defenses for Grandpa and nod at intervals to Grandma while we think about other things. It's easy to miss that Grandpa is getting more argumentative because he's worried about Grandma's health, and Grandma is chatting to cover her own worries. Chances are they aren't listening to each other either! A certain amount of "selective perception" is normal and healthy in any relationship because not all conversation is profound and deeply meaningful. However it is important to remember that things change for all of us. Regular, "real" contact with those we care for will keep us in touch with what life is like for them, and will facilitate growth in our relationships as changes happen.

Finally, we need to listen to ourselves. It is normal to be tired at the end of a day or after an unusual amount of exertion. However if you are feeling tired all the time, another cup of coffee is not the answer. Causes of ongoing fatigue can range from an unhealthy lifestyle, through anemia and heart disease, to depression. The same can be said for most bodily symptoms. Similarly, if you are chronically anxious, insomniac, or unable to make decisions, there is likely to be something that you are carefully hiding from yourself or refusing to face. The ostrich approach doesn't work. Listening to what the self is telling us and taking steps to resolve problems does.

Learning to listen, to God, others and ourselves, takes time and care. However, it can help to improve our mental, physical and spiritual health and relationships. It is an art worth developing.


© 2009 Parish Nursing Ministry