Are You Listening to Me?

"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say."  --Bryant H. McGill

Being a great listener is paramount to being an effective patient care advocate.  Our patients rely on us to give them what they need, and we can’t do our jobs without participating in active listening.  While there are always distractions and it’s impossible to be 100% attentive in every situation, here are 5 things to avoid when a patient is speaking, and 4 ways you can improve your listening skills.

A great listener avoids:

  1. Distractions.  Checking your pager, visually scanning the hallway for nurse friends walking by, jotting down notes not related to the conversation—these actions tell your patient that you are not engaged in the discussion at hand, and that her problems are not important to you.
  2. Interruptions.  Aside from just being rude, interrupting a patient’s concern or question does not allow you to hear their full story, and makes them feel like you don’t have time for them.
  3. One-ups. If a patient is telling you about her concern, don’t try to top her complaint with someone else’s.  For example, a patient who is sharing a concern about a doctor being crabby does not feel better when you tell her “You think that’s bad, he yelled at a resident in the break room today!”  A patient wants you to be present in her concern, not thinking of someone else’s.
  4. Premature Solutions. As healthcare professionals, we are expert problem solvers.  That’s what we DO.  However, not every patient interaction involves a problem to solve, and we don’t need to constantly look to find one.  If a patient is talking about her family and how she misses them while she’s in the hospital, she might just be sharing a bit of how she is feeling, she doesn’t automatically need to be told that you are going to ask her doctor for a psych consult or a script of Zoloft (although if it continues or worsens then a greater solution might be necessary).  Sometimes the expression of a feeling is part of healing just as it is.
  5. Defensiveness. If the patient is sharing an opinion about you, you might hear criticism that is not actually there.  If you are concentrating on being defensive, you cannot be a good objective listener.


Tips for listening success:

  1. Be aware of your listening habits.  Ask friends, spouses, and others close to you if you are a good listener, and what you can do to improve your skills.  (And refer to #5 above to know what NOT to do when you ask!)
  2. Practice good listening body language. Make eye contact, lean forward, get on the same level as the patient, and remain focused.  These actions convey to your patient that you are truly engaged with what they have to say.
  3.  Reword and restate.  After a patient shares their concern, repeat what they have told you back to them in conversation.  For example:  “What I’m hearing you say is that you are frightened when the housekeeping people come in to empty your trash, and you would like for them to knock and turn on your light before they come in.”  This lets the patient know you have understood their message.
  4. Be honest. Make sure you have time to talk, or let the patient know that you will return when you do.  There are moments during a shift where it is physically impossible to practice good listening skills.  If a patient catches you at an inopportune time, it is better to be frank  and let the patient know that you are in the middle of something and you want to give her your full attention, so you will return when you complete your task.  Give her a time frame, and then make good on your word and give her your full attention when you return.

Listening is constantly ranked as one of the highest markers of satisfaction in hospital surveys.  When you listen well, you are trusted.  When you are trusted, the patient will tell you more and you will be able to provide better care, leading to better outcomes.  Active listening is one of the greatest gifts that you can give your patients, each and every day.

Holly Godfrey
Holly Godfrey


Holly is the Founder and CEO of Catalyst Scrubs, an online fair trade medical apparel and accessory company that gives sustainable jobs to women in need around the world. Holly is a speech pathologist, social justice advocate and sought-after speaker. She lives with her husband Jim, their three children and a menagerie of pets in Lee's Summit, MO.

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