March 3rd, 2011
A few years ago, I was teaching a graduate seminar on classroom discourse. We read papers about different features of talk in schools that researchers have found to influence teaching and learning.
One of my students, an accomplished teacher, said to me, “What about listening? Does anybody write about listening?”
I paused and thought. I came up with a couple of things for her to read, but there was no identifiable literature on listening.
From her experience as a teacher, she knew that listening well was a fundamental part of what she did: knowing enough about how children make sense of an idea to interpret their initial, faltering attempts to wrap their head around it; finding a sparkling thought in the middle of what looked to an untrained eye like a dull lump of coal.
It’s hard to study listening. We can’t see it directly. It shows up indirectly in our interactions.
I have thought a lot about this empirical dilemma since that conversation with my student. Because listening is so subjective, in some ways, a first-person account is a reasonable approach to its study.
Inadvertently, today filled me with thoughts about listening. I will tell the story of my day of being heard and ignored at a time when the emotional stakes were high. My observations are inserted in my story in italics.
My husband and I switched our patient/caregiver roles. He had two surgeries for what I have come to think of as collateral damage to his body from my Year from Hell.
During that time, as he kept up his job, took care of our three young children and carried me through my cancer treatment, he eventually succumbed to four or five (we lost count) bouts of strep throat. The chronic tonsillitis required a tonsillectomy (surgery #1). For awhile, he found a physical outlet in a Thai boxing. It was great until a sparring partner, a yellow belt who knew just enough to be dangerous, broke his nose, leaving him with a severely deviated septum — ergo, surgery #2, a septorhinoplasty.
Surgeon #1 came in late for my husband’s consult. He discussed what he would be doing, what we could expect during the healing. It was all fine and good, a standard procedure that would only take a half an hour. He told me he would come to the waiting area and check in with me when he was finished with his part and Surgeon #2 was taking over.
“Great,” I said. “So I’ll wait to go out to lunch until I hear from you?”
“Okay,” he said.
I even repeated back our plan. He nodded and confirmed it.
Listening is a two-way process. I checked in with him to make sure I was heard.
There is a little status board in the surgical waiting room to give updates on the patients’ progress. My husband’s name appeared about 20 minutes later, letting me know that his surgery was under way.
Thirty minutes passed.
There was no change on the status board.
Surgeon #1 didn’t emerge.
I am generally a sensible person, so I did not let this panic me. Even though I am more vulnerable to imagining the worst given all that has happened in the past few years, I let reason continue to govern me.
Forty five minutes passed. My heart started pounding. There was no staff person in the waiting room.
Soon, sixty minutes passed. It became too much. I went through the swinging double doors to the nurses station.
I kept my cool as I approached. “Is everything alright? What’s going on?”
A nurse answered, sounding confused. “Yes, the first surgery went fine.”
“Where’s Surgeon 1? He was supposed to come out and see me.”
“He left. He had clinic.”
“But he told me he would come and check in with me. I’ve spent the past half hour waiting for an update from him. I told him I would go to lunch after he updated me.”
“I’m sorry. He must have forgotten.”
When somebody acts as if they have listened and then they don’t follow through,
it can be experienced as a disappointment.
If the stakes are high enough, it is a betrayal.
So the surgery continued. All was well so far. The next big hurdle would be the post-op, since my husband is one of the lucky 2% of people who gets severe nausea from anesthesia. We spent a good deal of time talking to the anesthesiologist about nausea control — something I sadly know more about than I had ever hoped to.
When someone answers your questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, it makes you feel listened to.
Surgeon #2 spoke with me after he finished his part of the procedure. Everything had gone well, faster than expected. My husband had stayed “strong and steady.” All that was good.
“How is his nausea?” I asked.
“We can’t tell yet. He’s just waking up.”
I waited for another hour before they would let me see him. I got all the discharge instructions.
“Hang on,” I had to tell the eager discharge nurse, who knew this information inside out and seemed impatient to get out and go home. “I need to take notes. I just finished cancer treatment and still have some short term memory issues.”
I could tell it was not her usual routine to communicate at my pace. She was kind and accommodating, but kept slipping back into her rat-a-tat-tat style.
When you are the main speaker, you need to listen to ensure that you are being heard.
You need to adjust your language, pace, and volume if you are getting cues to the contrary.
When they wheeled my husband into the waiting area, I could see that this was too hurried. He was pale and clammy. I can read his face like a book, and I knew he was suffering.
“I can’t take him in the car like this,” I said. “He is not well. I realize this is an outpatient procedure, but I don’t care what the protocol is. He can’t leave yet.”
Listening may involve more than the ears. It involves our eyes and our instincts.
The nurses brought him back to the recovery area. They brought him Fenurgan and let him rest to get it in his system. We had two failed attempts to leave before he finally made it all the way out the door.
During that hour, I said something somewhat apologetic to the nurse.
“Look, honey. That’s the job of friends and family. We are just meeting him for the first time. You know him. Everybody’s different, and we can’t always tell right off what he needs. You were right to speak up.”
Sometimes, people do not want to listen. We must insist on being heard.
And it sure is easier to speak up when somebody understands that.
This entry was posted on Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 at 12:06 am and is filed under Survivorship. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.