Listen Up!

One of the most important skills a person can possess whether they’re working in the streets as an EMT or a paramedic, or they’re sitting behind the desk as a supervisor or manager is the ability to actively listen.  It’s not a very easy skill to perfect. Too many people confuse active listening with actively hearing what is going on around you.  There’s a distinct difference between the two.

When a person hears something, they are acknowledging that there is noise.  Have you ever said to someone, “did you hear that?”  If the person’s response is confusion, or a lack of recognition, it’s almost instinctive to follow that up with a one word answer: “Listen!”  Listening involves the actual processing and recognition of what a person hears.  Hearing is instinctive.  People do it, animals do it.  Listening though takes focus and higher brain function.

Now, let’s apply this to a situation in the field.  It’s our job to listen to our patients, and it is really one of the biggest pieces of our assessment.  It is what gives us a story, and a history of the events leading up to what led them to call 9-1-1 in the first place.  While it’s important to hear the story that you are being told, it is much more beneficial to the patient if you listen to what they are saying.  There might be more to what is going on, and by not paying attention (not listening) you could miss that little piece of the story that puts everything together.

As a supervisor or manager, the act (art?) or listening to something that one of your employees has to say is a great way to make them feel involved, and lets them know that you truly care about the input they have to share with you.  It’s a great way to show an employee that they are valued.  Not every idea is achievable, I think most people realize that, but that doesn’t mean that an idea can’t be explored or even entertained.

Body language says a lot about whether or not a person is listening.  Are you facing me or staring at your computer screen?  If it’s the latter, you’re not listening.  Looking at your watch?  Not listening.  Engrossed in your iPhone or Blackberry?  Not listening.  Nothing shuts down creativity and puts a great idea to rest faster than a disinterested superior, and nothing makes a patient feel that little detail is unimportant more than a care provider who has already mentally moved on to the next patient.

What are some of the best ways to let a person know that you are actually listening to what they are saying?  First, make eye contact.  Look at them, not around them.  Avoid distractions, and let them know that you are on their time.  Don’t take up an imposing posture.  Keep your arms unfolded and relaxed. Also, do the best you can to get down to their level, whether they’re sitting in a chair, or down on the ground.

Most importantly, don’t just wait for your turn to speak.  Have you ever looked at someone who just nodded along with what you had to say just waiting for that break so they could get into the conversation and say what they want to say?  Don’t be that person.  While the point you want to add might be great, hearing what someone else has to say is just as important.

Also, make sure the person you’re talking to recognizes you are listening to them.  For example, for the field provider: “Let me make sure I understand, Mrs. Jones: the chest pain started last night, and got worse this morning, correct?”  Or, in the case of a manager or supervisor, “So the information you have can prove that the policy change will work?”  Create and be open to dialogue.  That’s the whole point of listening in the first place.

Actively listening is a skill that can differentiate a good manager from a great manager.  It can also set you apart from some of your colleagues in the field as well.  Overcome that urge to be heard, and invest time in what the person you are talking to is telling you.

For some more tips, and a great article about active listening, check out this article from