Saturday, May 1, 2010

Talk About Listening

Shaking more than I had in months, I joined the processional of professors being led to the small stage facing a newly minted class of university graduates. I enjoy public speaking and feel comfortable in front of audiences, but any casual observer would have guessed I was petrified. My right hand, arm and leg were uncontrollable. Obviously, I thought. We took our seats facing the expectant audience. No table to hide behind with an hour of squirming and twitching ahead. I could not use my standard tricks of putting my hand in my pocket or clutching my belt behind my back. Sitting on my right hand served little purpose except to look awkward as I tilted to the left, leaning into the shoulder of the distinguished gentleman next to me. I hoped that it was just an abnormal delay in the meds kicking in. “Relax, relax,” I repeatedly rebuked my arm and hand, but to no avail. The event wore on and the time for my short contribution to the ceremony came nearer. Then the nerve-jangling vibration started.

Of course, I was the only one who noticed the whirr. It was my Blackberry notifying me that, because of how I set the phone profile, after the end of the second vibration my phone would ring. Loudly. I had forgotten to silence my ever-present electronic “tether”.

Quadrupling my anxiety, it was like hitting the nitro button on my tremour. And I had a split second before a ringing phone would send snickering through the crowd, and serious embarrassment would give my face a deep crimson hue. But, thankfully, my reaction was faster than I expected. After minimal fumbling I drew the phone from its holster as nonchalantly as possible and hit the “ignore” button. Saved! Although my move might have confirmed my addiction to the smart phone on my belt, I was at that moment introduced and called to the podium.
With my speaking notes loaded on my Blackberry it likely appeared that I was simply getting my technologically recorded remarks ready instead of digging for a paper script. Between clutching the dais and pushing my right hand firmly in my pocket the short speech came off well. It went something like this.

I started by asking the question, “What is a skill you have practiced for many hours, over years, and will definitely need to succeed, but in all likelihood have not learned to do very well?” The answer: “Listening.” Not just hearing, or even listening so that you can regurgitate the words on paper or in a presentation, but wise listening. It is what my wife refers to when I am quick to counter her words with some lawyer-like cross-examination comeback (Don’t try that at home!). “Please listen to understand, not just to respond,” she says. Listen from the heart as well as the head. It is a skill that is rapidly disappearing and yet radically needed today. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice.” Or as Jesus warned in the book of Luke in the Bible, “Consider carefully how you listen.”
When it comes to Parkinson’s we need to listen; to our bodies, our emotions and the advice of wise friends and professionals. And we need to be listened to, allowed to remain a part of the dialogue of the disease despite not being doctors. Nothing communicates respect and caring more than the gift of listening. Maybe we all need to turn our “communication” devices off sometime and just listen.

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