We all seek to be understood, but sometimes we can be so intent on expressing our own points of view that we stop listening ourselves.
Last weekend, as part of the last module in a medical leadership course, I participated in a profound exercise with three other family physicians. We each took turns telling a brief story about a time when we were in conflict, personal or professional.
The three others took on the roles of listeners. One was to listen for facts, the second for feelings and the third for values. At the end of the story, each of the listeners reported back what they had heard from their assigned perspectives.
Listening to the facts seemed easy enough. After all, we do this every day in the clinic. Doctors are known for transcribing detailed notes on the history as explained by the patient, and to show that we’re really listening, we’ll ask questions to hone out even more detail.
Listening for feelings also came quite naturally. Physicians are taught early in family practice to attend to patients’ personal experience of illness. Medical students around the world are taught patient-centred interviewing with the acronym, FIFE (feelings, ideas, functioning and expectations).
In an empathy course I took in my first year of medical school, I learned the power of accurately reflecting back a person’s feelings. To feel understood can be the first step towards the relief of suffering.
This was useful in relating better to my patients. Later, it was helpful as a parent. When one of my children was upset, I would be able to calm them by accurately acknowledging the feelings they were experiencing and understanding their point of view.
If you have worked with the public, you already know that you cannot get an irate customer to calm down by telling him to. You must first acknowledge his point of view and his feelings.
Though the facts of the story are clearly explicit. Feelings may not be. Though we may talk specifically about feelings, sometimes they may be better reflected in tone of voice and nonverbal expressions.
Sometimes as listeners we have to be tentative in our reflections of emotion. We may not have it right; we may project on the other our own emotions or how we might have responded to the same situation. Yet we are open to correction and therefore better understanding.
Next: Listening between the words for values.