Home Perspectives Advice Healthy Aging: Being a better listener

Healthy Aging: Being a better listener

(Pixabay photo)

I recently had the pleasure of attending the tot service at shul with my two grandsons, ages three and soon to be six. The rabbi was personable, spoke in age-appropriate language and shared the message of Rosh Hashanah with a squirming, active and overall boisterous group of children and their families.

When he asked various children what they wanted to do better next year, some talked about doing better cartwheels (understandably important), or being better with others (also important). My young grandson said he wanted to be a better listener. For a three year old who has heard this many times at home, this was a very significant statement. And he understands just how important a concept this is as a life lesson. His mother was undeniably proud and the congregation agreed.

As I thought about his simple though profound statement, I was struck by how this concept touches us on so many levels. Most of us need to be better listeners – with our friends, our life partners and our co-workers. We may hear what is being said, but are we really listening? Are we understanding the true message, the impact of the other person’s words and their meaning, whether said or unsaid? Are we paying lip service to the statements or are we emotionally connected and truly hearing what the other person is saying?


When we talk in medicine about social connectedness and its impact on longevity, it is the emotional connection, the satisfaction of participation and the relationship between the people that confers the positive benefits. It is the listening, not the hearing, that is so helpful.

And what about listening to ourselves? Do we listen to our innermost thoughts about acting on something or refraining from getting involved? Do we choose to stand up for an idea, or do we ignore our first impression and choose to walk away? Do we believe in gut instincts, or do we suppress that inner unease, that warning sign from our moral upbringing?

Do we listen to our bodies? Perhaps we are tired, worn out and stressed. Do we suck it up and finish the task, handle the burden and ignore our stress? Maybe we do when we are in the middle of an important commitment, but at what point do we decide to listen to our bodies? When do we take the time to decompress, go to the gym or the park and work to improve our fitness?

In the day-to-day practice of medicine, doctors work hard to maximize their time with a patient, to get to the bottom of issues both quickly and efficiently. And given the structure of medicine in Canada, there is enormous pressure on doctors to spend less time with individual patients, in order to see more of them per day.

A 2018 study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that the average amount of time doctors give patients to discuss their issues was 11 seconds. Eleven seconds before the doctor intervened, making assumptions and moving forward. This is far from ideal.

I teach medical students and residents from the University of Toronto. It is wonderful and exciting to work with such positive, energetic and gifted people. Part of what I teach as a community-based family physician is learning how to listen; how to focus on the body language, not just on the computer record. I teach them to consider the patient’s past history and family dynamics and learn how to begin to slow down that 11 second stopwatch. It’s not easy and it’s not rewarded by our system. But it’s well worth it.

I am listening to my grandson and will also work to be a better listener.