Sarah’s Health Notes: Learning To Listen

Sarah’s Health Notes: Learning To Listen

Over 40 years ago, I first understood that listening could be as important as talking in helping someone – in fact even more so. I was a recovering alcoholic in AA (the 12-step programme Alcoholics Anonymous), which had incidentally saved my life. Before every meeting, we all had coffee or tea and chatted. That particular evening I found myself next to a woman a bit older than me, who I knew slightly. The importance of this encounter was that she talked – and talked – for maybe ten minutes, without stopping. Not frantically or aggressively or even nervously, but I remember sensing that she wanted and needed to get the words out of her head.

I was then in my early 30s, a budding journalist, and everything I’d learnt about conversation was predicated on saying the right thing, whatever that was, in different situations. So, funny, intelligent, flirty, sympathetic and so on. But always saying something. This time, I said nothing.

The surprise and light bulb moment came when we put down our coffee cups, started to move off to the meeting and she said, quite seriously, ‘thank you so much for what you said – it was so helpful’. I repeat – I had said nothing.

That experience made me understand that we don’t always have to have a speaking role, as it were, to ‘say’ the right thing. That listening can be as helpful as talking. I’m not suggesting that you keep mum in every conversation - but over the years, both in my professional life as a journalist and my personal life, I have also understood that the way in which you listen is vital. As Simon and Garfunkel sing, ‘Ten thousand people maybe more/People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening….’

Think how you feel when you are talking to someone, whether you’re saying something heartfelt or trivial, and they look over your shoulder. Pretty rubbish I suspect. As if they’re ‘cancelling’ you, quite probably not on purpose – they may be shy - but the effect is the same. Equally, think of telling someone something important and they interrupt, either with an experience of theirs or advice or just changing the subject.

Now contrast that with the person who truly gives you time – or if they don’t have time then explains and reassures you. A person who looks in your eyes. Maybe puts a hand on your arm to signify that they are there for you. You feel listened to. And you can do the same for the people who are talking to you.

Interestingly, in nearly 100 interviews carried out with patients for the NHS England National Overprescribing Review, which I wrote about last week (find it here), the key thing that patients wanted was to feel they were ‘being listened to’ by health professionals, according to Dr Keith Ridge, former Chief Pharmaceutical Office for England and the author of the Review. 

Recently, GP Dr Andrew Tresidder, an old friend and colleague, asked me to choose a topic for an episode of the Somerset Emotional Wellbeing Podcast, which he hosts with Dr Peter Bagshaw. Although I’ve been writing about health and wellbeing for over 35 years, I’m not medically trained so I cast around for a subject I did know something about. Which was ‘Learning to listen’.

Should you want to know more about how I learnt to listen – and am still learning – you can find the podcast here. We can all be better listeners – as Simon and Garfunkel sang, ‘talking without speaking…’ – and you might be surprised and delighted with what you learn. You will certainly make friends.