Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Generous Listener is a Healer

Patricia Lindholm, MD,
2010-2011 MMA President
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., in California.  It was called “The Healing Power of Story:  Toward a Closer Human Connection.”  Many of us are familiar with Dr. Remen through her books Kitchen Table Wisdom and Blessings From My Grandfather.  In her books she tells stories that indeed are healing to the teller and to the reader/listener. 

In attendance were physicians from various specialties, chaplains, social workers, nurses, psychologists and others in the healing professions.  There were people from the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Germany.  There was no formal syllabus for this course. 

Each day of the three day course was divided into two parts.  Most of the time we were doing guided small group activities with groups of 2 to 7 people.  Each half-day session had a theme and we had the opportunity to delve within ourselves and tell our stories to each other.  We were taught the technique of “generous listening.”  We were to listen completely and mindfully to each person without interjecting any comments or questions.  I found myself having to consciously restrain my impulse to ask follow-up questions which I so often use in my practice.  Likewise as a story-teller I felt completely supported and heard by my story-listeners.  The results of generous listening were profound.

I was privileged to be a listener to a story by a physician who had been carrying a load of pain and shame since her residency days.  She had not felt safe in telling her story before.  She clearly was relieved to tell her story to a generous listener and felt healed by the experience.  I also felt healed by sharing a story with her about a loss in my life. 

It occurred to me that patients come to us so that they can tell their stories and be heard.  They are looking for the healing that we can provide simply by being generous listeners and confidants.  This is true of procedural as well as cognitive specialists.  Sometimes a patient has a distressing and perplexing story to tell and we squirm because we do not have “answers.”  What Rachel Remen taught us was that we are “enough.”  We do not need special knowledge or wisdom to be healers.  A story listener is a healer.  That is enough.  We are enough.

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