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  • Amy Agape

The Role of Radical Listening in Cultivating Solidarity

I turned my head as the door to my hospital room opened. In walked a very young intern. He barely looked up from my chart as he said, “Hi. I’m just checking in. I see that you’ve arrived and gotten settled. Is there anything you need from me before I leave?”

“I need a sleeping aid,” I replied. It was after midnight. I had left my hospital room in Colorado the previous afternoon, taken first by ambulance, then by a life-flight jet, and finally by another ambulance to this new room in Minnesota. And I was exhausted -- not only from the arduous work of attempting to remain alert and calm, strapped into a stretcher for hours as medical technicians and nurses tended to my failing body. I took this journey after spending a month in the cardiac ICU in my home state, during which my physicians tried everything they knew how to do to keep my heart beating until it became obvious that I needed to have my surgeon perform another operation. The physical, emotional, and psychological fatigue I was in that night were immense, and I needed rest.

My husband was speeding along the highways and would arrive soon, and my surgeon was scheduled to visit with us shortly after that. I wanted to be as clear-headed as possible early the next morning. I needed rest.

The resident prescribed the medication, but not without a lengthy lecture informing me of the dangers of addiction. When he finally turned to go, he glanced at the laptop on the corner of my bed, which I had set aside when he arrived. “You know, staying away from that at bedtime would help you sleep.”

He left my room.

This young man may have considered himself my advocate, perhaps even my ally. But he was not.

I was not a human to him. Rather, I was a blank screen, on which he could project his ideas about addiction and sleep aids. He was viewing me only through a very tiny lens, one created by data and facts he had just learned in medical school.

How was he to know that I was on the computer to edit my sons’ final project for his sophomore Honors English class? I was committed to doing it perfectly, because I knew that this might be my last time performing a task that had been central to his education and to our relationship for the past eleven years -- looking over his homework not merely to check it but to allow the content to open us to ever knew avenues of connection with one another.

How was this young man to know that I was filled with agitation, knowing that my husband was racing to drive through four states so that he could get to my bedside as soon as possible -- our car taking him from one cardiac ICU to another. That he was making this journey alone, after just learning that, if I were to die during my upcoming surgery, our children would be forced to move away from him, their chosen home, their schools, and their friends.

The resident could have known these things if he had simply asked, “What is keeping you from sleeping?”

And if he had practiced radical listening.

He did neither of those things.

He also could have asked me about my relationship to medication, my history of using pain relievers and sleep aids. He could have even read about all that in the chart he held in his very hands. He could have radically listened to that printed information, even if he was unable or unwilling to listen to me. He might have learned that I typically forgo such medications until I have absolutely no choice but to take them. He might have read about my conversations with doctors regarding my fears of addiction and their work with me to overcome them so that I might receive relief from pain.

He did not listen to any of that information either.

The next morning, my body involuntarily constricted as I heard the door open again. I relaxed and breathed deeply when I saw that it was not the same resident entering. Instead, it was the attending physician. He introduced himself, pulled a chair to my bedside, settled into it, and looked directly into my eyes.

“Did something happen with the resident last night?” he asked.

After hearing about my experience, he said, “I am so sorry. That is not the way we treat patients here, and he will not be doing that again.” I felt heard and seen by this man; I experienced his solidarity with me.

He continued, “I want you to know that I do not think you are in any danger of becoming dependent on medication. I trust you to know what your body needs, and I will make sure that you have it.”

After completing my examination and discussing my plan of care, he turned to leave; I said, “How did you know that something happened last night?”

“The nurse saw you crying after the resident left your room,” he replied.

More solidarity.

The nurse, who must have glanced through the window and witnessed my sorrow, acted on my behalf. Perhaps she was not able to come in and comfort me; doing so may not be in her skill set or comfort level. But she in solidarity with me in the way that she was able -- by sharing about my situation with someone who could take action. And she did so through active listening, even if that listening took place through a closed door.

The resident was listening, too, of course. But he was listening to all the data and information he had learned in medical school. He was listening to his beliefs, opinions, and judgments about sleep aids. I doubt that he was even listening to his own rationality. I had been on the edge of dying for the past month, and we were not sure that this surgery would change that. Did it really matter if I took one pill to help me sleep?

Cultivating Solidarity requires radical listening. And the first step in radical listening is to really pay attention to all the noises that may be preventing us from actually hearing the person or situation in front of us.

I call this radical listening, because it requires that we do something many of us do not know how to do -- to bypass our habitual ways of listening, most of which we have learned to do throughout our lives.

Here are some of the ways we usually listen:

  1. We listen to one another as if we are watching a movie or reading a story. We take in what others are saying and ingest it for information, education, or entertainment.

  2. We filter what is being said through a very narrow lens created by y what we think already.

  3. We listen defensively, collecting data to prove a belief or opinion we already have.

  4. We listen when we do not have the time or attention or patience to listen well.

  5. We listen from a place of obligation or politeness or desiring to “be good”.

  6. We focus on our response as we are listening.

None of these approaches involves radical listening. And they rarely result in solidarity.

Radical listening invites us to rearrange everything internally so that we can meet someone where they are, sit on common ground with them, and truly know them from a place of solidarity.


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