The Art, Pain, Benefits, and Joy of Being a Good Listener

My listening skills have been pretty good since childhood. It comes second nature (so many things do; ever wonder what comes first nature?). I acknowledge what someone says to me as a courtesy, a way to let them know I heard them. But I, like so many, fell into the bad habit of being prescriptive. I kept up this infernal practice until one day when I realized I didn’t like it when people were prescriptive with me.

Of course, there are worse things than being prescriptive. After all, we’d have to have listened to give advice, and listening is the important function here. On a scale of one to 5 (one to ten would have sufficed but I try to avoid using clichés), advice-giving is a 2.5—mediocre at best.

Learning to be a better listener

Can one learn to be a better listener? Can one stop being prescriptive? Does it matter? Do people with MS need to make that a priority? Why am I even bringing it up? Have I descended into cognitive distortion/dysfunction/psychosis? Respectively:

  1. Yes, one can learn to be a better listener. The good news is that you don’t have to care or be engaged by what is said.
  2. Yes, one can stop being prescriptive. It’s easier while engaged in number 1 (listening better, not peeing).
  3. I believe people with MS should think about moving it up the priority list. I’ll explain why later.
  4. I’m bringing it up because it should be a priority (see number 3).
  5. Perhaps, but a descent into cognitive change is, in my case, a two-way street. What goes down can also go up. For all I know, I ascended to the change. What goes up can also go down. I skew positive.

An activity of the intellect

Listening is an activity of the intellect. I did it in college lecture courses while taking copious and organized notes. Not only was it a sign of respect for the professor, it helped me ace the course. In my case, however, I was sincerely interested in everything the lecturers said, and I imagine that made it easier to concentrate. I find that almost everything is interesting, an exception being the ninth season of The Walking Dead. I can only do so much listening to dialogue between Negan and Judith before I start sweating blood. I want to flog the fool that told them we love it when children speak unnaturally, much like they do in CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984). I want to throttle Rick’s little daughter, Judith (or is she Shane’s? I don’t really care. I miss Carl.)


Now on Sundays at 9, I flip over to documentaries. They are like college survey courses. If you listen, you can become a loquacious expert in everything from the migratory habits of penguins to how the hominin brain got bigger and bigger from Australopithecus to homo sapiens. And, it’s fun. No one will talk to you, but that’s okay. Taking a little vacation from listening is nice, too.

So far I’ve explored the folly and frustration of listening to bad children’s dialogue and the joy of listening to the honking trill of a penguin. If it has bored you, it could have been worse: you could have been listening to me in a podcast.

Why disciplined, detached listening should be prioritized

But let’s get practical. Here are some reasons why disciplined, detached listening should be higher on an MS patient’s priority list:

  1. Your doctor and nurse share important information about your health. To detach, pretend they are talking about somebody else, such as a loved one for whom you would advocate.
  2. Audio books. Listening to narration exercises a different part of your brain than watching television. We have to use our imagination more when we only have words. Listening to books expands our vocabulary, sharpens critical thinking, and makes the brain process new information, which can take the form of asking new questions. All these things keep our shrinking brains from shriveling quite as fast as they might without this kind of stimulation.
  3. Listening to people makes them think you understand them. It’s a special gift to give someone. So many people don’t really listen.

"She's a good listener

I went to a friend’s house and met a married couple with two children. They are Lebanese Muslims who are now citizens. The wife gave me a long response in excellent English to one of my questions. As I always do with everyone, I made eye contact, nodding occasionally to let her know I was engaged, and asked one or two follow-up questions. A few days later, my friend told me what impression I made on the wife. “She said you’re a good listener.” Of all the things that I said and all the things that transpired, that is what stood out for her.

Listening gets me out of my head

For me, that’s what it’s all about. Not only is it a supreme compliment, listening intently to another soul also gets me out of head, out of my pain, and plugged into humanity, community, if only for a few moments. And that counts as therapy for a battered old MS soul.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.