Intergenerational photo with grandmother and grandchild

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The Power of Listening

Listening to others and ourselves changes lives.

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As my mother experienced a greater sense of memory loss, she articulated her wants less with words and more with her hands and sounds. She called out, “Hey,” when she felt like she was being talked about or slowly parted her thinning lips upon her granddaughter’s visit. My mother pointed at something or someone and said, “That one.” It was up to caregivers or family to decipher if there was an issue or who it involved. By soothing her, and listening to the tone in her voice, caregivers became more attuned to her needs.

My own patterns were similar to her habits. My daughter once noted how I verbalized many versions of “huh” as a response to her questions. A long hmmm meant, “I have to think about it,” and a staccato huh meant, “I’m not surprised.”

Family, loved ones, and staff who find themselves on the other end of these cues must listen intently for the meaning behind the words and expressions.

Listening to Someone with Dementia

When our cognition fades, the ability to process language and respond appropriately also diminishes. The National Institute on Aging recommends a series of actions when communication becomes difficult between a caregiver and loved one. First, make eye contact, which enables loved ones to focus on the present and forces us to do as well. Second, slow down the conversation to provide an adequate amount of time for a question or response. Third, try to minimize distractions, don’t interrupt, and allow the space for someone to complete a sentence or thought on their own. All these steps combine to create an environment that some experts call active listening.

Many times, family members and caregivers will act as an interpreter for their loved one. But giving space for the loved one to breathe, think, and act on their own keeps them in engaged and empowered.

There are other ways in which we all learn by actively listening in our daily lives.

Listening to Bridge a Divide

Over the past few years, organizations have sprouted up devoted to teaching people how to listen to one another, in particular during an era when many families, friends and loves ones find themselves on opposite ends of belief systems. Within these groups, facilitators establish subject matters and ground rules on how to interact. They conduct discussions on difficult topics so we can achieve a broader understanding of the other person’s meaning, intent, or perspective.

To accomplish this goal, researchers suggest using a technique called motivational interviewing where the interviewer asks only open-ended questions and listens carefully to the responses. Adam Grant, a Wharton organizational psychologist, writes in Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, “Don’t try to change someone else’s mind. Instead, help them find their own motivation to change.”

In this mindful listening, silence offers the interviewee time to reflect on his or her thoughts, consider decision-making patterns more deeply, and possibly express an interest in changing their minds. Knowing they’re being heard also injects a sense of calm and confidence into the conversation and the interviewee.

Health Benefits of Deep Listening

Most of us turn on our music players and enjoy the sounds of musical notes playing in the background of our lives. But a musician listens to learn. How did they play that arpeggio, was that in ascending or descending order? This is deep listening, the process of listening to learn.

What can deep listening teach us? At the intrapersonal level, we learn about ourselves. What are our likes and dislikes? On an interpersonal level, instead of busying ourselves with what we want to say, we listen more consciously to what the speaker is trying to tell us, whether it’s a colleague, parent, or friend. Finally, at a group level, like a chorus, we hear what is important via the collective voice that might not otherwise be shared by an individual.

We all want to know we’ve been heard. That our thoughts and ideas contribute to the greater order of the world. When listened to, we feel valued, we feel like we belong. Renowned family therapist, Ester Perel, states, “When you listen deeply, deeply to the experiences of others, you also stand in front of your own mirror, and transcend aloneness.” 

Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press) and is a recipient of a 2020 NSNC award. A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, Shanti Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, and others. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.