Are You a Generous Listener?

The greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. ~ Henry David Thoreau

I was anxiously waiting to meet my new ophthalmologist to help me with a confusing eye issue. He entered the room and viewed my name at the top of the computer screen. While everyone calls me Deene, my full name is Bernardine. Upon reading it, he turned his stool to face me.

That’s a beautiful name, he said, looking directly at me.

Thank you, I responded. It was my mother’s, and she died when I was a teenager—so it means a lot to me.  He moved a little closer to me. That must have been hard, he said. It was, I replied.

How did your father manage with you, he asked? I swallowed hard and responded: “It was very hard. He didn’t know how to parent.” And so you parented him? he continued. (OMG) I did, I answered.

Where did you find your resiliency? he asked with piercing directness. Out of my mouth came the truth I rarely speak:  My mother taught me how to live as she was dying. He nodded and held eye contact before swiveling back to his computer.

How to Elevate an Introduction

This entire exchange took under a minute – or the equivalent of 10 breaths of air. And in that short time, he\’d successfully elevated a bland, introductory conversation to one of connection, and even trust.

He continued, asking all the necessary medical questions and then concluded the exam. Leaning in again he said: So what do you want to know? (Me? What do I want to know? Now there’s a paradigm shift.)

Propping my elbows on my knees, I met his eyes and knew I’d found a partner in my quest for good health.

We Are Inherently Poor Listeners, But We Don\’t Have to Be

In healthcare, the impact of poor listening is glaringly obvious. According to a physician colleague, when a patient begins to talk to a doctor, the average listening time is. . . ready? Between 3 and 11 seconds, shorter than it takes to wave to a stranger and brighten their day. According to this fabulous Forbes article, you have much more uninterrupted time peeing (yes, peeing) than you do with your doctor.

And we know it\’s not much different in our professional lives—with equally harmful consequences. Poor listening often leads to assumptions, misunderstandings, ineffective decisions, costly mistakes, hurt feelings, grudges, deteriorating trust, low morale, turnover, you name it.

In contrast, my interaction with my ophthalmologist reminded me that through generous listening, we can build trust, safety and connections– in just seconds.

Good Listeners Are Way More than a Sponge

HBR July 14, 2016 reports that good listeners are way more than sponges that accurately absorb what the other person is saying. They recognize their own emotions as well as those of the speaker. They’re like trampolines: 

A generous listener is someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

Generous listening involves intention, attention and effort. We’re intentional about listening and staying present; we’re focused with our attention, and through empathy we make the effort to stay curious and engaged. 

Generous listeners encourage a collaborative conversation for greater trust and problem solving to move things forward.

The Purpose of Listening is to Move Positive Change Forward

Just like the doctor did when I showed up in his office with my set of concerns. Through his gift of listening, he put me on a path to wellness. What might a minute or two of generous listening do for you today? As a giver or a receiver? Give it a try and I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. Generous listening takes practice – obviously. That’s why the topic makes for a fabulous retreat or training. We weave in EQ skill development and provide experiential exercises that leave a lasting impact. Because the feeling of being heard and understood is profound.

Co-authored with Cindy Stengel Paris, President, The People Skills Group

Scroll to Top