By David Lewellen
Genuine listening, even for a professional, can be a strikingly deep experience.
Robert Mundle, the Saturday afternoon plenary speaker at the NACC conference, told his audience of skilled listeners that they could help teach others to listen. There are 500,000 hospice volunteers in the United States, who want or need to develop their skills, and “who better than us to provide this kind of training?”
Mundle, the author of “How to Be an Even Better Listener: A Practical Guide for Hospice and Palliative Care Volunteers,” told the story of a care conference for a 93-year-old woman that the patient attended. Every specialist around the table gave input into how she should be treated, then the leader turned to her and asked what she thought, and she answered “You’re all too young.”
“And she was right,” Mundle concluded. “How could we know what it’s like to be 93? Or to be her at 93?” The conference should have let her speak first, and then proceeded with the responses from different disciplines.
Aside from basic skills such as being at eye level and not interrupting, Mundle talked about listening as a spiritual practice that can transform lives and relationships. “What does it feel like to listen to another person?” he asked. “And what does it feel like when someone really listens to you?” He did a research study of hospice volunteers, asking them to tell about a time in life when they were really listened to, and he found that it’s rare and powerful; some volunteers got emotional just remembering it. Another question was about times they needed a listener and didn’t get it, and the pain lasted for a long time.
In very difficult situations such as impending death, he said, “If you can’t think of anything to say, just say, ‘I can’t think of anything to say.’” The really important thing is just to be with the other person.
Mundle gave a series of examples from various fields such as jazz, portrait photography, being in nature, and storytelling, to show how genuine connection can be shaped in various situations. Sometimes in that situation, he said, people will say, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I’ve never told anyone before” — and there were nods from the audience.