Two Ears and One Mouth: Listening More Than We Talk in Healthcare

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC


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In healthcare, nursing, and medicine, communication is a central pillar of success. Whether in research, education, acute care, or school nursing, being able to listen well and speak clearly could not be more important. 

Having said that, the 21st-century world is a firehose of information coming at us from morning until night. Blogs, articles, social media, email, radio, television, the news, podcasts, and e-newsletters: it’s all too much to absorb. And even at work, the torrent doesn’t stop and we just can’t keep up. No wonder we sometimes can’t even think about listening to other people. 

At work as nurses or healthcare providers, the ability to turn that information faucet down and actually tune into what’s being said can be hard to master, but we must try since we could well miss something very important.  

If we could indeed slow down, take a moment, tune out the noise, and actually listen more than we talked, what benefits might we, our patients, and colleagues experience? 

Two Ears and One Mouth

It’s been said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we talk. Considering this adage, do any of us truly take this concept to heart in the day-to-day of healthcare delivery? Do we really listen? Do we choose our words carefully? The answer to both questions may very well be “not really”.

When you walk into a patient’s room and they or their family have questions, are you so busy trying to say what you need to say that they never have the opportunity to speak? Have you been caught off guard when a patient has said, “Do you know what I mean?” and you’re forced to sheepishly admit that you’ve missed what they said because you were busy thinking of what to say next? 

At shift report, your colleague is telling you about a very sick patient, but you’re thinking about a journal article you read this afternoon and how you need to tell your other colleague a story from yesterday’s shift. As the nurse’s report ends, you begin talking about yourself and your plans for today’s patient care but you’ve completely ignored what was just being said and now you’re behind the 8-ball as your shift begins. 

In team or committee meetings where many crucial opinions need to be shared, are you one of those people who speaks out of turn, takes up a lot of psychic space, hogs attention, and then tunes out when others are speaking? 

In all of these cases, it might behoove you to remember that you have one mouth and two ears so that listening will become a superpower that you engage in twice as much as speaking. 

Listening Isn’t Rocket Science 

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, active listening is more than we normally think it is. They contend that good listening entails, among other things: 

  • Asking salient questions “that promote discovery and insight”
  • Making the speaker feel supported and confident
  • Engaging in two-way feedback and interaction
  • Making useful suggestions

The article goes on to describe increasing levels of listening quality, including suggestions like turning off electronic devices; offering confirmation of what you are hearing; as well as paying attention to the body language of both the speaker and the self as listener. 

A plethora of articles and books on listening and communication offer a wide variety of strategies, and one common thread is the notion that listening is very much strengthened by curiosity. In that regard, a simple statement or question such as, “Tell me more about those conclusions” or “How did you come to realize that?” can encourage the speaker to take their point further while also contributing to the aforementioned sense of bolstered confidence and feeling supported. 

A Very Human Equation

Listening may not be rocket science, yet in the multidisciplinary environment of modern-day healthcare, the Tower of Babel can be an apt metaphor for what goes on between patients and providers, and even between providers themselves. 

Does the cardiologist listen to the nurse or does she just like to hear herself talk? Can the nurse truly hear the aide who has an important observation to make? And can the unit manager be quiet long enough to listen to the salient opinions of direct care staff? 

If we can move beyond the Tower of Babel and into the space of actively listening to our patients and colleagues, we can come to realize that those two ears on either side of our head are indeed quite useful. And when our one mouth waits for its turn and allows us to focus and listen with our double ears, that’s where the magic happens. 

Whether it’s a nursing home, a community hospital, or grand rounds in a research facility, listening more than we talk is one key to success, and when more people practice such skills on a regular basis, myriad aspects of our work – including patient satisfaction and improved outcomes – are what await us on the other side of this very human equation.

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