“You have ears but you hear not.” — Jesus

Listening deeply, mindfully, and attentively to another is a great gift of respect and even of love. Such listening is hard to do as we are often composing our response, solving their problem in our heads, or just thinking about what we are going to say in reply. These inner voices drown out the other person and interfere with truly listening to them and understanding their meaning.

In the clinical setting, we often get involved in patients’ stories that, though not purely biomedical in nature, definitely impact their health care. This is called the biopsychosocial/spiritual aspect of medical care and often is as critical to the medical interview as the blood pressure, lab tests, physical exam, X-rays and so on. Some recent examples come to mind. An elderly man living alone in an apartment without air-conditioning is having fainting spells. A bright 13-year-old is in for a physical and adjusting to her parents’ recent divorce. A cancer survivor suffering severe pain is alone with no family or friends nearby.

Listening mindfully to people can be therapeutic in itself. The process of being able to tell another your story, your feelings, your innermost concerns in a context that is caring, non-judgmental and supportive is in itself unburdening. As clinicians, we don’t always have the answers to every kind of life problem. Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t even have the time in a busy schedule to hear them all the way through. However, often we can engage a counselor, clergy member, community organization, social worker, nurse, consultant or other team member to pick up where we left off and follow up to help the person through their dilemma.

An obvious, but often unspoken aspect to good listening, is good hearing. Older adults who are experiencing progressive hearing loss risk social isolation, embarrassment and even concerns about cognitive problems as they don’t register words and conversations with others. Encouraging a thorough audiology exam, perhaps with Dr. Toni Jennings and her team at the University of Texas Medical Branch, can be a life-changing event for them. I recently suffered an ear infection that magnified pre-existing hearing loss for which I was already being evaluated. My staff and family noted a profound drop in my ability to listen and to hear them.

With Dr. Jennings and the otolaryngology experts’ help, hanging a couple tiny computerized hearing aids on my ears opened up a whole new world. I was able to hear sounds and words that had gradually muffled over the years. I can make adjustments from my phone and even tune out background noise in restaurants to focus my hearing on the person in front of me. My phone even goes directly to the hearing aids.

Both listening and hearing are very important in medical practice and life in general since words have specific, critical meanings. It is as Mark Twain once opined, “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

Practice attentive, focused listening. It is a generous and healing act. And if those around you notice you aren’t hearing well, get it checked out. Life will surely be better.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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