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Lessons in Listening: Magic in hearing

In a recent meeting up on the hill, my colleague began our time together by asking for name introductions and sharing of our superpower. The thoughtful and playful people in attendance had an array of fabulous powers: spacial prowess, google master, knucklehead whisperer, super-duper pooper-scooper. I was feeling spirited that day and chimed in with my diagnostic slam dunks of four rash cases in the clinic that week. It was a lively activity and opened our minds up before we settled in for the work in front of us.
Later that day I found myself reflecting on the exercise and pondering a thoughtful answer to her prompt. My answer: listening. For those who know me around town, that answer might make you chuckle. I’ll admit, I’m a pretty good talker as well! In all seriousness, though, this is the number one skill that I practice daily in my job as a Nurse Practitioner and Health Coach and the number one gift that I give to my family and friends.
In this world of multitasking and technological distraction, the art of listening has become an antiquated practice. It might even be equated to getting a handwritten letter in a metal mailbox! Yet, listening is essential for connection — connection to ourselves and what really matters in our lives as well as connection to others as we live in community. In case you have gotten a little rusty in this area, here are a few tips I use to cultivate my listening practice.
Start by listening to yourself.We can only truly give others what we are willing to give ourselves. Certainly one could neglect their needs and attend to others, but the outcome would not be true caring — it would likely be resentment, martyrdom and burnout. Our lives can often feel like a sprint from the time we wake up until our head hits the pillow at the end of day. One way to honor your intention to inner listening is to carve out space in your day to be quiet with yourself. You can start with just five minutes, maybe as you start the day with your tea or coffee. Or possibly you may choose to find a quiet space for yourself during your break or lunch hour. Try asking yourself a question like, what do I want to say yes to in my life? Then, take the time to pause and listen for the answer. Even better, you could just sit and listen to yourself breath and notice what it feels like to be in your body today, right now, right here.
Close your mouth and open your ears. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason! When we really listen, we have the opportunity to both hear and understand. Be curious, what might I learn about this person today? Ask them how they are and then listen for the answer. Watch them with your eyes. Put down your phone, book or newspaper. Stop tapping your foot or glancing at the clock or door. Let go of your internal dialogue about how you will respond. Go old-school by single-tasking and focus even for just two minutes on who is in front of you, what they are saying, and who they are. In my training as a nurse, we were educated in both the art and science of nursing. The science was straightforward; you study and acquire the necessary knowledge. The art of nursing is grounded in the wisdom of listening. This is where the real healing takes place, more than in any recommendation that I can give or medication that I can prescribe. When you listen wholeheartedly, and people feel heard and seen, I honestly believe magic occurs. The magic is in the true connection experienced and a sense of shared humanity.
Laura Wilkinson is a Nurse Practitioner and Integrative Health Coach at Middlebury College. Learn more about her and her coaching at middlebury.edu/middleburyintegratedhealthcoach.

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