I’m listening

The experience of listening, really listening, to another human is the most critical.

For the past 7 or 8 years our extended family has celebrated Christmas without exchanging gifts, except among the kids. Instead, from an idea my dad originated one year when one of our clan was in financial stress, we now all give Christmas presentations to each other. These have even been lovingly called FRED talks by my brother-in-law. They are from friends and relatives, they are on interesting topics, and we try to keep them to roughly 10 minutes of presentation time. Everyone participates—from the youngest verbal grandchild to the oldest visiting grandpa.

Over the course of the holiday season, with in-laws, “out-laws,” and family friends, some years we see and hear 15 to 20 talks over several days. We’ve discussed everything from tractors, baseball heroes, acting, roller derby, the hidden Mickeys in Disneyland, ballet, clefts, and Passivhaus construction to politics in science, color theory, chocolate, cricket, Everest base camp, and saxophones. There is usually passion, and sometimes evidence that people have been thinking about their topic for months.

We’ve had historical family stories told in first person, among laughter and tears, with details about the speaker and his or her past that sometimes no one had ever known. Three generations sit around the table or in the living room, almost always raptly attentive. There is wine and too much food, of course. There is a PowerPoint projector and a whiteboard if needed, but the best presentations are mostly done just with spoken word. Questions, exclamations, clarifications, personal experiences, and curiosity-driven discussions are always encouraged. Visitors or unexpected guests often give wonderful impromptu presentations.

When we think back to the years before we did this, it becomes clear that we really don’t otherwise talk to our extended families' close ones in that way. They are such interesting people when they talk about their true passions, and sometimes it’s the most they have ever been listened to. It’s been the single best thing we have ever done at the holiday; I think the importance is not so much in the talks that we prepare as it is in the fact that we actually and actively listen.

I have the current pleasure of living in a household with three teenage boys. Despite our best efforts, all of them are practically glowing with Wi-Fi. They are communicating all the time—silently, anonymously, cryptically, acronymically, and mostly in 140 characters or less. We don’t see their lips move much in a regular day. But at Christmas they always give a talk and they almost always surprise me. This year, our oldest first performed and then defamed mentalism and mentalism techniques, our youngest took us through a detailed description of space right out to the farthest reaches of the universe, and the middle one sat us down and described to not a single dry eye the story of residential schools. I am always amazed at what I learn from them, even though I am supposedly the parent.

I do worry about the generation of kids that has grown up largely without talking or listening much to actual people who are not their teachers. It’s not the same thing to send someone a link, an acronym, or a meme describing how you feel. Or to watch a video, or experience the sound bite–sized missives that can be sent with a GIF. Kids text on their phones even when they are right beside each other, and usually they are handling two or three streams of information at the same time, focusing on none of them particularly.

Of all the things our dinner conversations and FRED talks bring, I think the experience of listening, really listening, to another human is the most critical. In our careers listening is probably one of the most important and least well taught things we do. We sometimes have to guide and pare the conversations with patients, but I have been struck with how many times I hear something unexpected when I really listen to what a person says. It often takes longer, and one needs more patience and much less ego, but my eyes have been opened many times.

To paraphrase Epictetus, we are made with two ears and one mouth and we should probably use them in that proportion. That will be a resolution for me this year.    

Cynthia Verchere, MD. I’m listening. BCMJ, Vol. 59, No. 1, January, February, 2017, Page(s) 5 - Editorials.

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