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I have heard nurses say they didn't do anything but listen, yet patients say they felt much better. Listening may not seem like much, but it means much to the person being heard. One of the top reasons people join support groups is to find someone who will listen to them. Sadly, although most healthcare providers report they listen, patients report they don't feel heard. Sometimes providers are so busy writing or dealing with equipment they don't look at their patients. They may think they are listening, but body language speaks differently. Nurses additionally filter the background noises of beepers, monitors, and ringing phones. We are accustomed to selective hearing, which can affect how attentively we listen to the voice of the patient.


There is more to listening than just hearing words. My aunt, an elementary school teacher, spoke about a boy who stayed after school to talk to her. He stood by her desk while she graded papers. Soon he stopped her and said, "Mrs. A., you aren't listening to me." She assured him that she was and recounted the conversation. He was stumped for a moment but soon responded, "Mrs. A., I want you to listen with your eyes." Spiritual care researcher Beth Taylor (2007) mentions four dimensions of listening: intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual. Intellectual is factual content like when my aunt reflected what her student was saying. Emotional reaches to the feelings of the person speaking. Physical is an awareness of the nonverbal and postural messages. Spiritual is when the listener has an awareness of the holy relationship and an awareness of a divine presence.


Patients need to feel assured they are being heard. Taylor purports that not only is listening a prerequisite to a healing response, it is a healing response (2007). We may listen at the word level, yet patients desire to be heard at eye, heart, and soul levels. Deep listening involves energy and focus on the part of the nurse, but nurses don't always feel we have the time or energy to stop and hear beyond words. Another problem is we can fail to listen with an open mind. Sometimes I find myself asking a question and then answering it with what I think the patient may be thinking, rather than hearing how the patient may be feeling. This results in a cutoff to communication. Poor listening can be cultural as well, such as in America when we ask, "How are you?" but rarely stop to listen. In actuality, the question is nothing more than a greeting.


Benefits of listening are many, such as helping the patient feel connected. Listening clarifies confusion. Burdens are lightened when others really listen. Patients feel empowered when actively heard. Listening aids healing as patients feel cared for, loved, and supported.


Is it time to fine-tune your listening skills? Henri Nouwen, a priest/psychologist, believes that the ability to really listen is a gift to people. Really listening is a form of "spiritual hospitality," which requires "paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our being." Offer complete focus; listen attentively, lovingly, and compassionately (Hernandez, 2008).


Does quality listening meet spiritual needs? It seems so. Practice listening. Listen more attentively and develop a keener focus on becoming present with the patient. How can we find the energy and focus to listen? Practicing solitude, quieting ourselves, and shutting out the noisy world may improve our ability to hear the voice of our patients. Spending time with God through Bible reading, prayer, and meditation restores our souls.


Focus to hear your patients. Listen to the hearts of those you serve, and you will help bring healing.


Hernandez, W. (2008). Henri Nouwen and soul care. New York: Paulist Press. [Context Link]


Taylor, E. (2007). What do I say? Talking with patients about spirituality. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton. [Context Link]