Humankind Special: Listeners

Airs Sunday, August 2, 202, at 7 p.m. In a time of polarization, the simple practice of listening to another can feel like a lost art. There’s a kind of mystery in sitting calmly, patiently, attentively and tuning into someone else’s personal story – their experience and life journey. In this new Humankind special presented by David Freudberg in association with WGBH/Boston, we hear the reflective insights of people who listen for a living: physicians, counselors and clergy.

There’s a kind of mystery in sitting calmly, patiently, attentively and tuning into someone else’s personal story – their experience and life journey. In this Humankind special, we hear the reflective insights of people who listen for a living: physicians, counselors and clergy.

Says best-selling author Joan Borysenko, who’s written on neuroscience and now practices as a spiritual counselor in Santa Fe, New Mexico, listening with generous compassion activates the “affiliation” systems in our brain. The mind becomes happy or focused at this profound connection. “When I’m listened to deeply, I relax and move out of the stressful part of myself – the part that maybe wants to defend something, and into a part of me that has the courage simply to be honest, and to be myself.” She’s author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.

We also consider the experience James Gordon, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington and author of Unstuck. He does a lot of listening in his work with traumatized children and their families facing crisis. We hear the story of survivors of the horrific war in Kosovo in the mid-1990s. Said a family who lived through atrocities in the war: “We know that you are listening to us, and we know that you are going to share our story with others. And that is all we could hope for. That’s all we want.”

A chaplain at El Camino Hospital near San Jose, California, Rev. John Harrison, tells the story of encountering a patient who was a little rough around the edges. He recalls entering “one of the most brilliant conversations I’ve ever had about life and the meaning of life” which arose when he abandoned talk of religion and listened to the patient in his care.

Joan Borysenko adds a discussion of “meta-awareness”, in which we become conscious of our own sometimes very distorted thoughts, to avoid being hijacked by them. This an essential practice in clearing mental space to be available to someone we’re listening to.

Irene Harris, a therapist with the VA Health Care system in Minneapolis, comments that some professionals can get caught up in “the self-evaluative monitor” where they focus more on their own performance, than on attending to the needs being expressed by the person in their care.

Finally, Jim Gordon considers the process of relaxing when we face a situation that is stressful or even baffling. “I need to surrender, and I’m surrendering to the universe, to God, to – surrendering, giving up my expectations, my beliefs, my roles, and just being present. So it’s really a question of letting go.”