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A health crisis reveals the value of listening

Sarah, a professional singer and client of mine, had a frightening thing happen to her three months ago. While sitting at a swimming pool, she sneezed, ruptured one of her vocal cords, and was then unable to speak. Her doctor told her to refrain from speaking or whispering for at least a month. She remained silent for the prescribed four weeks, and after several sessions of voice therapy, her vocal cord healed completely and she was able to sing once again.

What I find compelling are the things Sarah learned about herself during her month of silence. She summarized it in the following way:

At first, I tried to fully participate in all conversations by using sign language and writing on a large pad. After a week, I used the pad just for essential communication and resigned myself to taking part in conversations as a listener only. This was difficult because I felt like I was a non-person when I wasn’t talking. It was as if I were disappearing or didn’t exist if I couldn’t express myself in words.

I also discovered that my four-year-old son was angry because I wasn’t talking with him. He didn’t care that I had an injured vocal cord-he missed talking to his mommy. Ted, the man in my life, with whom I talk a lot, was initially confused and didn’t know how to handle my silence, so he stopped talking. I was troubled by this because I felt like I was letting him down.

By the end of the second week, I stopped worrying about others’ reactions to my silence and became more comfortable with the situation. Once I relaxed with it, Ted and my son also relaxed and began talking to me even though I couldn’t respond.

I made another discovery during this time, an amusing, yet also disturbing one. When I went to department stores and wrote on my pad that I couldn’t speak, the salespeople treated me as if I were retarded. They spoke to me in loud, painfully slow voices and used a lot of unnecessary hand motions. It was funny but I also found out how a mute person might be treated on an ongoing basis.

Socially, I began to notice that friends and relatives, who I had previously assumed did not talk much, were talking a whole lot more when we got together. Since I couldn’t talk, it was natural for them to take up the slack, but there was more to it. I realized I often assume the role of entertainer at our gatherings and hold center stage. I decided that once I could take part in conversations again, I would try to listen more and keep the entertainer part of me under wraps.

I was struck by how candidly Sarah described her experience and how much she had learned during her month of silence.

I suggested that because she is an entertainer and has a fine sense of humor, her friends may not resent her taking center stage and may be content with her assuming the entertainer role during their get-togethers. Even so, she told me, she was uncomfortable with the behavior because of the tradeoffs she was no longer willing to make. She described it this way:

I realize I’ve been missing out on important things others have to say, and I do worry that my friends, at times, must resent my taking center stage. I want to give up unnecessarily assuming a lot of responsibility for the success of given get-togethers, and looking back now, I remember sometimes feeling tired afterwards from the strain of it. I think I’ve been placing great stress on my throat by doing so much talking. Finally, I think it’s good for me to listen more. I need to learn how to be more comfortable with silence and space.

With great insight, Sarah explained why listening and sharing conversation time is important between friends. Her increased self-awareness is a powerful argument for the immense value of honest introspection.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.    


Comment from J.McB
Time: September 27, 2007, 1:10 pm

As someone who loves to hear the sound of their own voice, this hit a little close to home.
Interesting what you hear when you listen. Even in silence there is much to hear.
That brings up an interesting thought, as someone who is much more comfortable being funny, entertaining,center of attention, I find it difficult to sit in a room alone and just “listen”. Just listening to myself thinking is difficult. Now apply that to interactions with others and I see that I hear “sound bites” rather than the whole palate and nuances that occur in a conversation.
I think that most people, in the absence of formal listening training, are mentally multitasking even during the most mundane of conversations. Thinking about what the other person is saying, thinking about what you want to say next, thinking about golf, thinking about what you want to eat, etc. etc. etc.
Interesting how having to take yourself out of the mix can open you up to opportunities and discoveries.

Comment from Chris
Time: September 27, 2007, 7:43 pm

I was fascinated by this post. What a delight she must be. Someone capable of both entertaining and listening (and hearing) would be a tremendous gift of a friend.

Comment from K
Time: October 18, 2007, 7:44 am

THis post made me smile inwardly in a warm fuzzy kinda heartwarming way. How amazing that the body can teach us so much 🙂 and how wonderful she chose to listen to the learnings that came her way :). Good for you Sarah! X

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