Monday, September 3, 2012

Are You Listening?

Well, are you?

Has anyone ever asked you that question? Your mother? Your spouse? Your son or daughter?

I've certainly been asked.

As Jacob ( my 11year old)  has been recounting a story while I have been tidying the kitchen, lost in my own thoughts and checking my phone, he'll ask,

 "Are you listening?" 

Followed by

"Well what did I just say?"

I will be on the phone to my mom who is calling from London and she'll catch me short with,

"Gilly are you on the computer?"....( erm yes I am  and I've been FB chatting with Benjy, looking at CNN/The Daily Mail and deciding what to have for dinner.........aaagh)

Yup, I'm guilty of not always listening and my nearest and dearest know full well when they have my complete attention....and when they don't!  The truth is, I have learned how to listen but I don't always practise it and  I hope that when someone has something important to tell me, my antennae are up and they have my unwavering attention.

Anyone with teenagers knows, that if they decide to tell you something, you cannot miss the moment because you do not know when it will happen again. They could be asking your advice about a friend or telling you about something great about their day. You might even be knocked sideways because they want your opinion about a piece of home work. Ok, maybe that is too far fetched an example but you want to be able to listen just in case.

When it is time to listen to something someone has to tell you, something important, fragile, risky or  frightening, how you listen can either shut them down or help them process, move forward and heal.

Sharing something personal is a risk. Will that person judge you? Will they try to solve the problem for you? Will they keep your private information to themselves? Will they really hear what you are trying to say and understand how you feel or will they offer advice that might be helpful to them but is of no relevance to you?

Listening should be easy. After all  we have been listening from the womb. Scientists encourage us to talk to our pregnant bellies and companies have made millions of dollars marketing CDs of classical music to our yet-to-be-born proteges. Babies learn to speak by imitating the sounds they hear and we know our  children are  listening because they quote us far too accurately in embarrassing places, using snippets of conversation and words we did not want them to know in the first place.

Listening should be simple. But I have learned that listening is an art that takes practice and is the most precious gift we can give to someone we care about.

I first understood  how to really listen when I trained to be part of Linkline,  the free confidential and anonymous listening service, run by students for students  every night from 7pm to 7 am at Cambridge University, where I studied. 

In our training we were taught that we were not there to solve callers' problems, not there to give our opinions or share our own stories. We were on the other end of the phone to listen carefully to students in distress for as long as they needed and on their terms. 

We learned to stay focused on them and their issues, to clarify we understood what they were saying by checking with them and by listening to the words they used.  We learned to help them work through their issues. They  did not always find solutions or come to conclusions, but hopefully the callers felt we had really heard them and they were not alone in their pain.

Most recently I learned more about listening from the listening "angels"  at JSSA Hospice where I worked until last September. The hospice social workers, nurses and chaplains gave new meaning to listening being an art. To hear them in team meetings recall a conversation they had had with a dying patient, was truly to understand the gift of having someone listen. 

They taught me that listening is about being in the moment with the person you are listening to, travelling side by side with them through their concerns, pain, distress and fear without judgement or interruption. Acknowledging, caring and respecting their feelings, with a nod of the head, a murmur of agreement and support through gentle touch.

Rachel Naomi Remen MD in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom writes a  poignant piece called  Just Listen

She says,

Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention and especially if it is given from the heart. When people are talking, there's no need to say anything but receive them, Just take them in. Listen to what they are saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it..........A loving silence often has more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.

And so the next time someone asks me, 

"Are you listening?"

I am going to try my best to be fully present with them, ignore the call of my computer, texts and my  thoughts and focus completely on the important words they might just say if I am present enough and quiet enough to really hear them.

Looking forward to listening to you. Please share you thoughts on this post or any others by leaving a comment below.

Talk to you soon.


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  1. This piece is brilliant and handled a complex skill so masterfully. I have two additions - one is that many doctors I worked with in my capacity as chaplain have said that hearing the human sense that lasts the longest, so people in End of Life situations hear what people say to them and around them long after they have lost the ability to smell, taste, feel or see. And second, there is a Jewish tradition that the time after a person dies, until they are burried their soul sort of hovers and doesn't disappear right away. This is considered a very holy time and is the reason that the body is "kept company" or "guarded" until burial. During this time the rabbis thought that the soul could "hear" our prayers and eulogies etc.

  2. Thank you Kara. You make 2 incredibly important points. Just as we can hear before we are born, our sense of hearing remains with us to the end of our lives and perhaps beyond. So it's never too late to listen or to say something important to those we love.
    Thank you for commenting and for being a great listener.

  3. I get asked that all the time, the funny thing is I usually am, and can repeat back to them what was said. I think it is the weird combination of being a good multitasker and being ADD

    1. If you are a good multitasker then that helps if you are trying to listen and do 3 other things successfully.But the message that another person receives if you give100% of your attention to them is that listening to them is the most important thing you could be doing and what they have to say is priceless

  4. Can you hear me now?

    1. Loud and clear Jessie! what do you want to tellme?