Listening Better – Enriching Communication In & Out Of The Clinic

Confident young middle eastern man in business casual wear and glasses listening intently to partner sitting opposite him at the desk in sunlit modern office

“We are losing our ‘listening’,” says sound and communication expert, author Julian Treasure [1].  “The world is now so noisy, with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen; it’s tiring to listen. Many people take refuge in headphones, but they turn big, public spaces… shared soundscapes, into millions of tiny, little personal sound bubbles. In this scenario, nobody’s listening to anybody.”

In a busy world, full of noise and clutter, it’s a valid concern. If we are losing the ability to be present and intentional in the way we listen, what is slipping through the cracks of our concentration? Did we miss something in a patients narrative that could have lead us to discover a significant stressor all because we ‘autopiloted’ our way through a session?

Perhaps we glossed over a hint at a symptom that got thrown out in conversation, because we weren’t present and intentional in our communication. It’s not just a problem for health professionals. It’s a problem for everyone.

There are some common pitfalls that get in the way of quality communication. One of them is the temptation to interrupt the speaker because you’ve got a solution they need to hear about now [2]. But resisting that temptation can be a discipline that takes a little practice to master.  

Many a communication expert has talked about active listening skills. These include using body language to show that you are listening, using eye contact to make sure you are zoning in on what the speaker is saying, and offering feedback. Others recommend using questions only to enhance understanding, rather than going off on tangents extraneous to the central topic [2,3]. All of these are fantastic skills to have, and certainly worth revisiting every now and then.

Julian Treasure takes a very different approach to the issue of listening. It’s partially technical, aimed at recalibrating our ears, and partially reminiscent of mindfulness training. He claims that teaching people how to listen should be a skill taught in schools, and one that could help us create a more peaceful and connected world. Big claims to make, and certainly something worth thinking about! But how do you do it?

In a recent TED Talk, Treasure gave some gems of advice on how we can improve our listening.

The first gem is the realisation that intention is important in listening, and that conscious listening creates understanding. “A world where we don’t listen to each-other at all is a scary world indeed,” says Treasure. Here’s how he advises we fix that problem.

  • 3 minutes a day of silence can allow you to recalibrate.  It isn’t unusual for many of us to go without silence for all our waking hours. That’s a crowded space to live in. No wonder we zone out. Simply taking time out to sit in silence every day is a powerful way to recalibrate. Of course, it might be a virtual impossibility to do that if we live in bustling environments. Still, it’s worth the effort. “If you can’t get silence, go for quiet,” says Treasure.
  • If you are in a noisy environment, try to figure out how many channels of sound you can hear. This is where Treasure’s advice takes on a mindfulness-type nature. He advises that we try and zone in on certain sounds, rather than the cacophony as a whole. How many machines? How many birds? How many distinct voices, or background noises, or other factors?  
  • Master the art of ‘savouring.’ Savouring, according to Treasure, is when you actually learn to enjoy mundane sounds. He uses the example of his tumble dryer. “It’s a waltz,” he says, before illustrating how it has a ‘1,2,3, 1,2,3’ rhythm. By learning to enjoy the sounds around us, we can tune in to what Treasure calls ‘a hidden choir.’ It’s all in an effort to be present with sound instead of zoning out of it.
  • Play around with listening positions. Did you know that each one of us listens from a position? Listening positions can differ according to our relationship to the speaker, but its something Treasure recommends playing around with.  Are you listening actively or passively? Are you listening reductively, or expansively? Critically or receptively? These are just a couple of positions you can listen from.
  • Work with RASA. “The acronym is RASA is the Sanskrit word for ‘juice’ or ‘essence,’” explains Treasure. It stands for “Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, and Ask.” To receive is to pay attention to the person. To appreciate may involve making little noises like “hmm,” “oh,” or “OK”. To summarize involves using the word ‘so’ before paraphrasing the speaker’s message so you make sure you are understanding.  To ask simply means to ask questions afterwards.

Treasure believes that listening plays a very important role in our lives. “I believe that every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully — connected in space and in time to the physical world around us, connected in understanding to each other.”

Perhaps it’s a good challenge to take on while the year is still fresh. Let your listening enhance your connection to people and to the world around you.


[1] Treasure, J (2014) “Five Ways to Listen Better,” Ted Talks retrieved 23 January 2017

[2] Schillings, D ( retrieved 21 January 2017

[3] Staff Writer, (2016), “Active Listening – Communication Skills Training,” Mind Tools, retrieved 21 January 2017

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