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Just Listen

by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person
is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps, the most important thing we ever give each
other is our attention. And especially if it's given from the heart. When people
are talking, there's no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in.

Listen to what they're saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is
even more important than understanding it. Most of us don't value ourselves or
our love enough to know this. It has taken me a long time to believe in the
power of simply saying, "I'm so sorry," when someone is in pain. And meaning it.

One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often
interrupted to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to
them. Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually, she
stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through
listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that
we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen,
they know we care. Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having
someone just listen.

I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening. In the
old days, I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person
a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of
their experience of sadness and grief. Now I just listen. When they have cried
all they need to cry, they find me there with them.

This simple thing has not been that easy to learn. It certainly went against
everything I had been taught since I was very young. I thought people
listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the
answer. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect
than the most well intentioned words.

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