To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking.
- Peter Senge

"Real connections can't happen without effective listening," says Beverly Edgehill, president and chief executive of Partnership Inc. "Listening is more than hearing."

Listening is no passive state. We are never merely hearing someone else speaking. The way you listen changes the way someone else feels heard. The quality of your listening influences the way someone else interprets you.

Listening is an action. Your listening colors what you hear. What you listen for is a filter, limiting what you let in. Whether or not we know it, we are always actively listening for something. We may listen for someone to be critical, for their motives, or for their message. When in doubt, listen for a learning opportunity. Listen for what you can learn about your loved one or the healthcare professionals to shift the energy and outcome of a conversation, allowing it to move in surprising ways.

For instance, let's say you are caregiving for your mother who is chronically dissatisfied. You enter her room one day and she begins complaining, "That aide intentionally left my walker just out of reach!" You might write off to her bad attitude, if that is what you were expecting. Or you could listen for an underlying message. Could she be feeling lack of control over her life? You test it out by giving her a manual puzzle that she still is quite good at solving, and her attitude immediately shifts. Finally she has something she can do.

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The way you listen can also shift the way someone feels about you. You can move a difficult conversation to constructive ground by cultivating a non-judgmental, compassionate, or learning listening. Take the time to ask yourself:

  • What is important to this person?
  • How would it feel to have their personality?
  • What might have happened to have them speaking as they are?

Too often we rush to finish a conversation to get on to the next thing. Society gears us for quick communications. Our listening cannot keep pace. Move too quickly through caregiving and you may miss something important. You could overlook a chance to foster mutual trust in your healthcare team. You might miss your loved one's vague reference to a serious concern. You may lose an opportunity to let your loved one feel heard.

"Life is short so you have to move slowly," an old Thai proverb tells us. Slowly listen beyond anger. Slowly listen beneath judgment. Slowly listen for opportunities for learning and connection.

Holly Whiteside is a caregiver coach and author of "The Caregiver's Compass: How to Navigate with Balance and Effectiveness Using Mindful Caregiving."