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Guest Commentary: Listening is an essential skill; let's resolve to be more present to patients, colleagues

You might remember the video from last year—an unfortunate 67-year-old woman, walking along nose deep in her smartphone; she didn't see an open sidewalk access door and went tumbling into the concrete chasm below.

It's the kind of seriocomic scene that can make us a bit smug. Was it her own failure to pay attention that caused the accident? Would we ever let ourselves become that inattentive?

Yet how many of us are preoccupied when we should be fully aware of what's going on right in front of us? How many times have our friends, customers and co-workers made the effort to tell us something they deemed important, while we, distracted, disregarded their words and therefore disrespected them as individuals?

We are largely in danger of losing the ability to communicate effectively with others, and in the healthcare arena, this is totally unacceptable. Our relationships with patients and our colleagues are primarily based on trust. If we don't give others the attention they deserve, we will not be able to obtain the trust needed to deliver the optimal outcomes that we dedicate ourselves to every day.

It is to remedy this global breakdown in communication that at Greenwich (Conn.) Hospital, part of Yale New Haven Health, we are promoting "intentional listening." We are committing to putting down our smartphones, taking our eyes off the computer screen, and anchoring ourselves in the ongoing dialogue that is a vital part of medical care.

Honestly, it's not the easiest thing for many of us to do. Hospital staffers are busy, with many competing demands for their time and attention. And like busy people everywhere, we must multitask our way through the day to get everything done.

However, without intentionally listening, we often have to ask a colleague to repeat what they've just said or re-interview a patient to answer an obvious question. Or more importantly, we lose the opportunity to use our keen observational skills to assess the situation being presented.

Often we assume that we know the direction of the conversation and interrupt the speaker to move the dialogue along. Usually we're just trying to facilitate the discussion, perhaps guiding a patient or colleague into telling us what we need to know. However, in doing so, we may fail to hear what the individual truly wanted to relate and what they felt was important for us to hear and understand.

Intentional listening is a discipline, and I would venture to say it will become a best practice in healthcare. We'll all benefit by coaching our staffs to maintain focus when they're in transactional situations and to truly identify whether they are fully present or just "in the space." The importance of listening, observing, questioning and clarifying the message, is the key to establishing trust.

There are other essential elements that involve cues from observing unspoken language. Are we signaling to the speaker interest or disinterest in our facial expressions? Are we turned toward our communicator or are we turned away, glancing at our watch or down the corridor to our next destination? A respectful stance toward others demonstrates much about ourselves, our ethics and integrity. Our posture can energize the conversation, focusing it on the most important thing that is going on. Right here, right now.

In today's healthcare world, our minds and lives are cluttered. This simple but vital algorithm of behavior, of being present rather than just filling space, develops trust and teamwork where it is essential. Intentional listening is a core competency for any successful enterprise, especially in healthcare. We must remain in the "here and now" to perform at the highest level.

The late missionary Jim Elliot perhaps put it best: "Wherever you are, be all there." We must commit ourselves to making it so.


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