The young woman in front of me sat cross-legged in the hospital bed clutching her swaddled newborn with tears streaming down her face. This was her first birth. She’d had a C section the day before and she had no family with her in the room. Her partner was not available. For the present, he had scurried off somewhere to get food, to take a break, or get some much needed rest. She was not sure. What she was sure of was that she had been “completely misunderstood” by the nursing staff. She stated that she felt both avoided and ignored, even neglected, and most definitely not listened to.
The above scenario is one I, unfortunately, confronted far too frequently as a Postpartum doula.
The most important component of our communication skill base, as birth workers, is our ability to listen.
Simply stated…We need to become active listeners.
The word “active” is an adjective. It means: 1. engaged in action, characterized by energetic work, participation, etc; busy, 2. being in a state of existence, progress or motion, and 3. involving physical effort and action.
As active listeners we will:
- Give the speaker our focused, undivided attention.
- Limit the distractions in the environment. This may mean moving to a quieter place or merely turning off a television, radio or cell phone.
- Seek to be influenced by what the speaker is saying. Try not to allow our minds to wander and begin developing responses. This can be a real struggle.
- Let the person finish expressing themselves. Only when they continue rehearsing the same point should we step in to indicate that we do understand.
- Watch for non-verbal cues during their conversation. Most of what a person thinks comes forth in their body language (facial expressions, posture, gestures and eye movements). Being aware of this may help us better evaluate just what they really are thinking.
- Be aware of our own body language. Make the effort to show interest with eye contact, leaning forward, nodding, and smiling occasionally, if appropriate.
- Talk very little or not at all. When we do speak, we definitely need to be aware of the loudness of our voice. It can convey respect or a lack thereof for what is being shared and the person sharing it. Our speaking pace, our vocal tone, and inflection are also important. Remember, it’s not just what we say, but how we say it that makes the difference. Saying “aaah,” “emmm,” or “uh-huh” can also convey that we are focused on what is being said, demonstrating our respect for the speaker.
- Seek clarification to avoid any misinterpretation of what the speaker is saying. Summarize our understanding by saying, “So what I am hearing you say is… Is that correct?” This type of paraphrasing or repeating requires obvious and determined attention to what is being said and goes a long way in building trust in the speaker that they are truly being heard. Hearing their own words reflected back to them often helps them clarify their own thoughts.
- Use open-ended questions to encourage still more revelation or opening up. “What do you mean?” or “How does that make you feel?” are good examples of questions that demand a more expansive response than a simple “yes” or “no.”
- Be patient with the speaker. Some people require a bit more time to articulate their thoughts. Wait for them to complete their speaking.
- Learn to be comfortable with short silences. Consider them part of the conversation. Silence often encourages the other person to fill it or to be able to gather their thoughts free from our intrusion. This also shows respect.
- Withhold judgment and the making of assumptions. When we do, we cease to listen, we become distracted by our own need to “fix” the problem or the person, and we ultimately disrespect the speaker in many ways.
A simple question, “Why do you feel so misunderstood?” revealed the source of this new mother’s utter frustration and the resulting tearful retribution. A second question, “I hear you saying that this post-op gas pain is giving you a heavy bit of discomfort. Are you asking for medication specifically for this?” brought a smile to her tear stained face and a vigorous nodding of her head.
Active listening is love in action, and LOVE WINS!
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
~ Maya Angelou
By Margi Deneau-Saxton, CPD, CCCE
Copyright CAPPA 2015