The Lost Art of Listening



There’s a kind of mystery in sitting calmly, patiently, attentively and tuning into someone else’s personal story and life journey. In this special 2-part program, you’ll hear the reflective insights of people who listen for a living: physicians, counselors and clergy.

We consider the experiences of James Gordon, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington and author of Unstuck. He does a lot of listening in his work with traumatized children and their families facing crisis. He tells the story of survivors of the horrific war in Kosovo in the mid-1990s. A family who lived through atrocities in the war told him: “We know that you are listening to us, and we know that you are going to share our story with others. And that is all we could hope for. That’s all we want.”

Joan Borysenko, a best-selling author who’s written on neuroscience and now practices as a spiritual director in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says that listening with generous compassion activates the affiliation systems in our brain. The mind becomes happy or focused at the deep connection. “When I’m listened to deeply, I relax and move out of the stressful part of myself – the part that maybe wants to defend something, and into a part of me that has the courage simply to be honest, and to be myself.” She’s author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.

A chaplain at El Camino Hospital near San Jose, California, Rev. John Harrison, tells the story of encountering a patient who was a little rough around the edges. He recalls entering “one of the most brilliant conversations I’ve ever had about life and the meaning of life” which arose when he abandoned talk of religion and listened to the patient in his care.

Joan Borysenko adds a discussion of “meta-awareness”, in which we become conscious of our own (sometimes very distorted) thoughts, to avoid being hijacked by them. This an essential practice in clearing mental space to be available to someone we’re listening to.

Irene Harris, a therapist with the Veterans Administration Health Care system in Minneapolis, comments that some professionals can get caught up in “the self-evaluative monitor” where they focus more on their own performance, than on attending to the needs being expressed by the person in their care.

Finally, Jim Gordon considers the process of relaxing when we face a situation that is stressful or even baffling. “I need to surrender, and I’m surrendering to the universe, to God, surrendering and giving up my expectations, my beliefs, my roles, and just being present. So it’s really a question of letting go.”

To listen and view additional resources for this episode please visit:

Follow “Humankind on Public Radio” at:

Review & Commentary