An Oregon Medicaid Agency Supporting Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Are You Listening?

Activating Your Listening Skills

By Stephen Rex Goode

My morning routine consists of waking up at 3:40 AM and heading to the gym. I take with me my cell phone and a large Bluetooth headset. After swimming, I take my headset out of my gym bag and set it on the bench next to me. After getting dressed, I hang it from my shirt collar and leave.

A couple of weeks ago, I did this routine, but instead of hanging the headset from my shirt collar, I absentmindedly left it on the bench. When I got to work and looked for it, I realized my mistake, except that I thought I left it at the snack bar where I got a protein shake for the trip to work. The worker looked for it on the counter and couldn’t find it. She suggested I call back later and ask the front counter people if it had been turned in as lost-and-found.

That’s what I did. I started out by asking if a Bluetooth headset had been turned in. While I was trying to describe my headset, the person on the other end of the phone was talking about walking over to the lost-and-found shelves. He said he didn’t see it. I tried again to tell him that it was not the little ear-bud kind of Bluetooth. It was big enough to fit over my head with a microphone that extends. I was pretty sure he hadn’t heard me say that part and had told me to call back later and again over the weekend. I called back later that day and then twice on the weekend. Each time, the person answering the phone told me they didn’t see it and it seemed to me that they were tuning me out every time I tried to tell them it was going to be big and obvious with a camouflage coloring.

That next Monday morning, I asked the early morning person at the counter to look for it. She opened up the drawer and there it was.

Our society is losing the extremely valuable skill of listening. I’ve noticed this in many settings. I remember going to a meeting with a leader at my church. I had set the appointment because my daughter needed a recommendation to get into college. When my wife and I arrived and were invited into his office. He started talking and talked for 20 minutes. When he was done, he stood up, turned the door knob, and thanked us for coming in.

I remained seated and said, “We made this appointment for a reason.”

He was embarrassed at not having thought to ask why we were there and signed our form.

I’ve been to counseling appointments, banks, government agencies, medical appointments, stores, and customer service centers. People don’t listen. So many people I know talk right over the top of me and I’ve got pretty good assertiveness skills. We cannot and must not be poor listeners for our customers.

In Oregon, supports that we provided must fit the definitions of person-centered and self-directed. In brief, that means that our customers are in charge of the supports we provided, within the context of their individual service agreements. When making plans for sessions in which we provide supports, we have to plan around what the customers want to do?

We recognize that they may need our support to refine ideas or even to come up with ideas. That’s part of the services we provide. However, there is no way to do this work without having the skill and discipline to listen more than we talk.

Remember that many of our customers have had their lives and choices dictated to them in the past. They may have become so accustomed to being told what to do that they do not understand their rights to assert their own preferences. We must be careful not to provide ideas in ways that customers don’t feel they can resist.

It should be noted that listening also includes awareness of body language, vocal cues, asking clarifying questions, and repeating back what you understood. You can’t claimed to have truly listened if you haven’t made every effort to understand what is being conveyed.

In my years as a Behavior Support Specialist, I came to understand that at the heart of all behavior problems is frustration with not feeling heard or understood. Family members, workers, and other people in the community will not have the patience with your customer that is required to understand what your customer wants. The result is often aggressive behavior directed at the impatient people your customer encounters. You don’t want to be one of those people. You must advocate for them, not to get your point across, but to ensure that your customer is understood so that maladaptive behaviors are avoided.

The communication supports we provide fall under two headings, expressive communication support and receptive communication support.

Expressive communication supports are that you are there to support your customers in expressing themselves when they are having difficulty doing so. You can’t do this correctly if you don’t truly represent their desires and you can’t represent their desires unless you’ve done all you can to understand them.

Receptive communication supports are the supports you provide so that your customer can understand what others are saying to them. This means you have to be listening in both directions. You must also listen to the people your customers encounter so that you can accurately explain what is being said to them. In a way, you’re stuck in the middle and what you have to say doesn’t matter quite as much as what your customers and others have to say.

I recognize that this goes against most people’s communication habits. Being a good listener is not something that just happens. You have to make an effort. Following are some things you can do to make sure you’re doing your job as a good listener.

  • Do a mental evaluation of yourself after your work is done. Ask yourself, did I listen more than I talked? Did my customer seem to feel like I was listening?
  • Try timing yourself. Don’t be like that church person who talked my ear off for 20 minutes without once wondering why I asked to see him. Become self-aware about how much you talk.
  • Practice not saying anything until the other person has stopped talking for at least 15 seconds. Practice on friends and family.
  • Practice working on paying closer attention to emotional vocabulary. What a person really means to say is most accurately reflected in the feelings they express. Craft your responses to echo back emotion-related words. If someone says the word “frustrated”, make “frustrated” a part of your response.
  • Try this with a friend. Decide on a topic. Set up a video camera where it can see two seats where you and your friend will have a conversation about the topic you chose. Decide which one of you will be the main listener and which one is the main speaker. Discuss it long enough that you forget that the camera is recording. Watch the conversation and then evaluate yourselves and each other on how well you listened. Switch roles and do it again.

5 Responses to “Are You Listening?”

  1. Turid Hanssen said:

    An excellent reminder! Over and over again I hear that statement “I am SO frustrated! Nobody listened to me or tried to understand what I was saying.” So sad!
    We have an important thing to do as bridge-builders for our people.

  2. Stephen Rex Goode said:

    Thanks, Turid. It is almost an epidemic. People are so distracted that almost nobody stops to listen anymore.

    And thanks for the work you do.

  3. Becki said:

    Thank you so much, Rex. I think this is spot on. You’re 100% correct. No doubt that all of us need a reminder about how important it is to be fully present and truly listen.
    However, in our role, its paramount. Especially for those clients that may have difficulty in expressing themselves. Your cues about being attuned to body language and one’s reactions, I believe are key, for some of our folks. I have found that some clients are surprised (sadly) that someone took the time to truly hear them and feel that their opinions and input is wanted, much less valued.

    I appreciate you taking the time to sharing your own experience and provide tools and exercises to enhance our skills. I hope all of our clients feel were are hearing all they have to tell us.

  4. Stephen Rex Goode said:


    Thank you. I hope so too. I think we do pretty well.

    We really appreciate the work you do.


  5. ARISE Mentors » Being Leaders said:

    […] Are You Listening? […]

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