'Of course I'm listening to you ...'

I once heard a dentist lecture on communication skills and divulge to the group that when it comes to listening, he falls short.

by Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS

I once heard a dentist lecture on communication skills and divulge to the group that when it comes to listening, he falls short. He said he is guilty of thinking how he can deliver a polished response to the person he is supposedly listening to. Remembering that led me to write this column, because I've done some research on the concept of mindful listening for one of my lectures. Apparently, many of us do this. We frequently slip into automatic pilot dialogue, which enables us to carry on an interactive exchange whereby we are present physically, but checked out mentally.

Why are we not 100% attentive for many of our conversations? There are plenty of reasons. We have internal barriers in place that distract us. One of the greatest reasons is our preoccupation with the almighty self. We're not listening fully because we're thinking about the disagreement we had with our spouse that morning, or the errands we must run after work. Or, as in the case of this doctor, how best to respond.

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Other articles by Morrissey

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When we listen completely to someone, a rare gift is exchanged. Remember those moments in your life when you knew that the other person was giving you their undivided attention? How great was that? Patient compliance and dental team compatability would happen far more easily if we could just get this practice down to a science.

It takes the right mindset and a concerted effort. You have to want to fully be present. If you're guilty of giving only 40% of your energy to listening, and faking out your conversation partner on the rest, this is not a concerted effort. Think about some of your client interactions. Are you occasionally going through the motions, nodding your head, saying, "uh huh," and throwing in a little eye contact for good measure? It can happen so automatically that most of us are barely aware. (I realize I do this in some of my exchanges with patients.)

Window to the soul: Eyes

I will never forget the day that my then 8-year-old daughter called me on this. "You aren't even listening to me, Mom," she said. It stung, and deservedly so because I thought I had her fooled. How many of us are getting caught every day, and end up silently rejected by the other person rather than confronted? These are lost opportunities, lost rare gifts, lost insights.

Dr. Anthony N. Di Cesare, a former employer of mine and listener extraordinaire, has the gift. Whether you're his colleague, patient, or employee, whether you're in a group or one-on-one, he locks his window-to-the-soul eyes on you and makes you feel that there is no one else present, and that there is nothing more important than whatever it is you're conveying at that very moment.

The paramount question is, how do we effect this in ourselves? Consider the essence of Zen — practice being in the moment during conversations, as well as in all other actions. Refocus every time you catch yourself drifting. Mental noting is the discipline of being aware of all the senses. Try it. For example, when you scale a tooth, be conscious of your ergonomic pose, the noise of the instrument, the feel of your gloves, and the smoothness of the surface you're trying to attain. Practicing mindfulness with concerted effort, on a regular basis, will invite the same into all other activities, including conversations where you are pretending to listen.

Doesn't that require boundless energy, you may ask? The answer is no. Instead, it makes you incredibly efficient. One moment of mindfulness equals many moments of mindlessness. Multitasking is not all it's cracked up to be. What a surprise on that one, right? The joke is on us, foolish jugglers!

All of us experience the feeling that time has passed too quickly. How can it be the New Year, when July 4th was just here? How can my child be in high school, when seemingly yesterday she was a baby in my arms? The "aha" moment of my life came when I read that time passes quickly because we spend no time being focused on it. Suddenly, the automatic pilot dialogue I'd delivered through the years as a response to those bemoaning this fleetingness about life came right back to me in a flash.

I finally get it, and I understand the solution. Make every effort to bring mindfulness not only to your conversations with others, but to your every waking moment. I believe that every aspect of your life will change in a positive way when you do so.

Onward we go; it is in our hearts' core! RDH

EILEEN MORRISSEY, RDH, MS, is a practicing clinician, speaker, and writer. She is an adjunct dental hygiene faculty member at Burlington County College. Eileen offers CE forums to doctors, hygienists, and their teams. Reach her at eemorrisseyrdh@aol.com or 609-259-8008. Visit her website at www.eileenmorrissey.com.

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