The art of listening, actually listening

I never knew that listening to someone, listening to someone: processing what they said and asking questions based on what they said, could be so difficult. Then I woke up one day, went to my first SPC, and completely messed up!

Since then, I’ve tried to master the art of listening. Some people are naturally talented at this, and it comes to them with seemingly no effort. Unfortunately, I do not fall into this category and will have to find another way to do this. After every SPC I get tips that I should listen to the patient and then the conversation will flow naturally. This was too vague for me, so I started looking for certain tricks to make it easier. After two years of trying and failing, I have come up with some concrete tricks that make it easier to listen to patients.

Presenting to you the ultimate guide: How to listen to patients for dummies, written by a fellow dummy. (Disclaimer: Not a licensed listener)

The easiest trick in the book is repeating what the patient says. Literally.
When a patient says, ‘Oh I’ve been drinking a lot of wine recently, because I’m stressed about work, and it helps me relax.’ Repeat a part of the sentence that you want them to elaborate more on: ‘stressed about work?’. 10 out of 10 times, the patient will elaborate more, and this will give you a better picture of the situation. It will also give you time to process what the patient said and shows that you’re listening. So, you get more information and more time to think.

My next golden tip is to drop silences every now and then. This may feel awkward, especially in the beginning I felt a need to constantly ask questions when the patient stopped talking. But I learned that letting a silence fall for 30 seconds might give the patient room to tell something that they would have otherwise never told.

Another thing that I did a lot in the beginning was read the NHG page on whatever topic it was about, and already have an idea in my mind about the cause of the problem. During the SPC, I would be so busy in my mind thinking about certain questions that I shouldn’t forget to ask, that I completely forgot to properly listen to the patient. Try clearing your mind before an SPC and see where the conversation takes you, it’ll take you further than overpreparing, trust me.

Lots of people say that you should show empathy. To me, this meant saying ‘oh, it must be terrible for you!’ at random breaks in the conversation. This comes across as very forced and it doesn’t really show a lot of empathy, sometimes even the opposite. I’ve realised this and there are more subtle ways of showing empathy: nodding along, not laughing at the wrong times, thinking about a solution to help the patient. The easiest way to show empathy is to ask questions about how it affects them personally, and what they want from the consult. This makes them feel understood and it doesn’t come across as a forced line that you keep repeating.

You can practice the fine art of listening all the time! Make use of it and listen to your friends, repeat certain things that they’re saying, let silences fall from time to time. I’ve tried this and it works. This way you can experiment with different tricks while it’s not filmed and watched by your whole CORE group.

Last of all, a lot of people are very nervous about SPC’s, which is very understandable because it’s only four times a year and it feels like a moment that you must prove that you are capable of something. I still feel nervous but there’s one thing that we have to keep in the back of our minds: making mistakes is actually good. You learn much more from your mistakes, so don’t be afraid to experiment with these tricks that I gave you, but also try doing new things and who knows, maybe you can make your own guide on how to survive an SPC!

Goodluck everyone and see you in the next article!

Saumya Mohan