According to Dr. Groopman, “How a doctor thinks can first be discerned by how he speaks and how he listens.” In the last post I gave the true story example of how one doctor listened. Let’s focus on how to tell a good listener. What characteristics would you give to describe a good listener? The following are a few of the characteristics I thought of in response to this question:
A good listener is active in the conversation. “I follow you.” “Uh-huh.” “Go on.” These statements all show that the listener is actively involved in the conversation. They also show that what you are saying is important.
A good listener will maintain some eye contact with the speaker. How often have you gone to the doctor and found that he/she was more intent on your chart than on what you were actually saying to him/her? This doesn’t mean that the doctor shouldn’t be making notes but you should notice some eye contact. I have actually seen doctors who have had their head buried in the chart or anywhere but on the patient for almost an entire visit. This drives me nuts!
A good listener asks open-ended questions. An open-ended question is an invitation for you as the patient to give your story. “What brings you to the office today?” is a good open-ended question. While you may have already told the nurse why you are there it is good for the doctor to give you a chance to tell him/her this information. Don’t get irritated by this and wonder “well, didn’t I just tell the nurse why I was here?” because this is a sign of a good doctor. I found this to be a most useful question when I was practicing as a nurse practitioner because not all patients are up-front with the receptionists or nurses about why they want an appointment. In contrast, a closed-ended question allows for only simple, usually one word answers, like “yes” or “no”. For example, “Do you have a fever with your sore throat?” This does not mean that there is never a time for closed-ended questions, but they should not be used the majority of the time. They may need to be used to ascertain more information once your story has been told.
A good listener avoids “why” questions. “Why” questions lead people to become defensive. There is always a different way to phrase a question to discover the same information without asking “why.” Try this with your kids sometime when you are tempted to ask a why question. Does it make a difference in how they answer you?
How did I do in my list of characteristics of a good listener? What would you add?