The Exchange

Commentary and Observations from
the Medical Front Lines

The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening

One of my favorite songs is "The Sounds of Silence" by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Although my interpretation of this song may vary from the artists' intent, fundamentally, this song moves me to thinking about and reflecting upon the art of listening: How we listen? Do we listen? Do others perceive us as listening?

Some of the core competencies for leaders are based upon the premise of listening. How would you be able to collaborate, manage conflict, create networks, or communicate effectively without listening? These competencies are surely not unique to leaders but are skills we need to be able to exercise every day in our work lives and our lives outside of work. A statement I heard many years ago was, "Listen for understanding, not to reply." A simple yet compelling concept. How often do we get caught up in a moment where we’re focusing so much on how we are going to respond to what someone is saying that we actually stop listening to what it is they are saying?

We inherently understand patients' need and desire to be heard. In a qualitative study on what people want from their healthcare, Leana S. Wen and Suhavi Tucker found that 85% of respondents noted the importance of a provider who "listens, cares, and explains issues to patients." Yet, not uncommonly, we feel rushed in our interactions with patients as a result of things like time and resource pressures, technology requirements, and distractions. Some of our ability to overcome these challenges is in the art of how we present ourselves. Over the years, I have worked with and observed a number of clinicians who were truly masters of attentive listening. Their patients experienced 5 minutes of attentive listening as extensive, uninterrupted time. These clinicians were gifted with inverse charisma, which Adam Grant describes as the "magnetic quality of a great listener."

How do we become better listeners? Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer note the importance of listening "without judgment or an agenda" and characterize listening as "a multidimensional practice" requiring "commitment and constant attention." How our body language reflects our attentiveness is as important as the art of attentive listening itself. Are you making eye contact? Presenting with openness in your posture? Leaning in?

Perhaps this issue of listening—and being listened to—resonates now more than ever as we adapt to a changed world and a changed way of how we interact and communicate with each other—as friends and family members, as colleagues, as leaders, as followers, and as caregivers. Connection is a basic human need, connection is fostered by communication, and good communication is predicated upon good listening.

  • Bryant A, Sharer K. Are you really listening? Accessed March 8, 2021.
  • Grant A. Think again: The power of knowing what you don't know. New York, NY: Viking; 2021.
  • Wen LS, Tucker S. What do people want from their health care? A qualitative study.J Participat Med. 2015;7:e10.

Filed under: NPs & PAs, Practice Management/Career

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