Listen Closely

Listening is a key ability among most, if not all animals for communication purposes. While we may hear words being said, we are unable to recognize their meaning or 'connect the dots' without listening.  Simply put, listening is giving attention to something, such that our brain is then able to convert noise to meaningful information.  A good example of this conversion is morse code; what we hear is merely a random series of short and long sounds.  However, when we listen, we are then able to translate meaningless noises into specific, valuable messages.

The other day, I met a new client for their Initial Consult.  At the end of the session, I asked the client how they felt about their counseling experience. The client responded, "You know, I don't remember the last time I was able to talk about myself for a whole hour and was actually listened to."  I was quite struck by this comment.  While I'm glad my client felt listened to, I despair at the thought of this lack of time and attention given to listening in our everyday lives. Regularly being listened to is an innate human need and, without it, we may be left feeling incomplete, unfulfilled, and/or unworthy.

This lead me to ask myself, am I a good listener?  How can I improve my listening skills?  When was the last time I felt truly listened to?

As a private practice dietitian, I rarely have access to my clients' medical records, which provide detailed, written and verified information about an individual's health history.  So, apart from analyzing lab results and looking at the physical appearance of my clients, I rely almost entirely on the stories and body language that my patients present. However, I cannot fully understand this auditory and visual 'data' without wholeheartedly listening.  And without truly listening to my clients, I am unable to create appropriate nutrition prescriptions. 

During my time as an undergraduate student at Ohio State (O-H!), I had the opportunity to work with a team of students and an advising professor in the area of Narrative Medicine as applied to the practice of nutrition and dietetics.  Narrative Medicine was created by Dr. Rita Charon and colleagues, and is defined as:

“a model for humane and effective medical practice where the ability to acknowledge, absorb, interpret, and act on stories and plights of others in order to practice medicine with empathy, reflection, professionalism, and trustworthiness" (1).

Narrative Medicine emphasizes the humanity of each individual. We are so much more than our disease state or medical condition, and these other 'things' greatly influence our lives, our decisions, and most importantly, our health.  However, in order for others (like your dietitian) to learn and understand these outside influences affecting your behaviors, they must truly listen to collect your unique narratives.

What if your doctor failed to listen to your quiet comment regarding a medication allergy?  What if he/she interrupted your narrative where you were planning to share that you are struggling to afford food on a regular basis?  These details are essential to providing quality medical care, and the same goes for nutrition.  Your story matters, oftentimes more than your blood cholesterol number or present weight on the scale.

Physician, Writer, and Professor, Sayantani DasGupta, shares an incredible TED Talk (below) about Narrative Humility and the importance of listening.

"Being seen and being heard and being made to understand that we matter in this World, that is one of our fundamental human needs."
"Listening is not a one-size-fits-all activity... it is nothing less than tapping into our inner-most humanity, and making that humanity present, such that we might witness the humanity of another."

Bottom line: listening to the stories of others, in medicine, in nutrition counseling, and in everyday life, makes us better; better practitioners, better moms, better dads, better friends, just better.  So, I encourage you to put your phone, laptop, or newspaper down, look your loved ones and/or patients in the eye, and truly listen to them – you might be surprised about how much you learn.

Listen well,