The Transformative Power of Listening

As much as the phrase “captive audience” is bandied about by advertisers and media, listening is not passive.  It is not something that one person can truly force upon another.  Nor can it be realistically achieved as an act of surrender.

Listening is a voluntary act.  We all make active decisions on who we listen to, for how long and how well. Any type of listening takes some time, energy, thought and emotion.   It is an active investment of our personal resources.   Deep, careful and empathetic listening can be time-consuming, mentally and physically challenging, and emotionally draining.

But listening can also open us up to its transformative powers.

One of the first bloggers I read and followed when I started blogging was an Australian writer named Julie Goyder.  I can’t remember now the exact path that lead to her blog, “jmgoyder — wings and things.”  I do know I came for the bird (peacocks, ducks, chooks, etc. ) adventures.  I got caught up in the romance stories of Julie and her husband.  I am learning through her candid sharing of her husbands journey through Parkinsons and dementia.

When I discovered Julie wrote a book about Alzheimer’s Disease back in 2001, I had to read it.  As a temporary care-giver for my Mother-in-law who suffers from the disease as does her only living sister, I know how deeply overwhelming, frustrating and disheartening the disease can be for all concerned.

We'll be ... FremantleWE’LL BE MARRIED IN FREMANTLE: Alzheimer’s disease and the everyday act of storying” is based on Julie’s dissertation thesis and work as a nurse aid in an Alzheimer’s ward.  It explores how the “everyday storying” of the Alzheimer’s patients transformed her understanding of those patients and how deeply vital the act of storytelling is in everyone.  And most particularly for those who are perceived as invisible and voiceless.

The book is framed around the storytelling of the patients and one in particular — Joe, who mistakes Julie for his fiance.  I was awed by the power of her experiences and her candor and articulation in weaving together patient stories and research.  But it was the confirmation of my own belief in the active, vital and transformative power of listening that most inspires and motivates me.   Without an act of listening, storytelling is just noise.

So here are some telling quotes on listening from WE’LL BE MARRIED IN FREMANTLE:

Listening is an Act of Recognition and Validation:

“… the Joe story made me realize the importance of simply listening to people with Alzheimer’s Disease in a way which was not part of a therapy or a program but part of everyday life, part of being human.

… this book is an attempt to raise awareness of, and celebrate the storying by people with Alzheimer’s Disease; to encourage people to listen to a storying which, no matter how fragmented or seemingly disconnected, is still storying — that thing that we all do every day.” (pg. 21)

Listening is an Act of Collaboration:

“The everyday act of storying can be seen to be a cognitive and an emotional experience.  These story experiences are a vital part of man’s existence and are contextualized by the human desire (the need) to interact and form relationships, and the need for meaning.  It is important to realize that this everyday need to both tell and listen to stories, to share stories, is just as vital for people with Alzheimer’s Disease as it is for anyone… (pg. 200)

When these stories are seen to be dysfunctional, the reasons are often to do with a lack of response and collaboration, a collaboration which is a necessary factor in all everyday story function… (pg. 201)”

Listening is an Act of Learning:

“As a nurse, I found it upsetting that the personalities, life experiences, and what I thought of then as the ‘inner’ or ‘real’ selves of people with Alzheimer’s Disease, were ignored.  I now realize that it wasn’t some intrinsic self, but their own self-representations that were ignored — their own stories of who they were and who they had been.

In my experience, these were rarely stories about being ill or confused, or stories about being institutionalized or excluded, or stories about being old or about dying.  Instead, they were stories about love, romance, life, home, friends, loss, hope; stories in which the autobiographical ‘I’ worked hard to re-establish itself as something certain in the face of the confusion experienced as a result of the disease and institutionalization.  And yet these stories were ‘read’ as nonsense.  And their tellers — the people with Alzheimer’s Disease — were seen as being somehow separate from their stories and not part of them; their stories were viewed as the disembodied ramblings of the diseased, rather than stories told by people.  (pgs. 104-105)

Listening is an Act of Caring:

“When I began to listen, however, I began to see these stories as attempts to retrieve and reconstruct selves that had somehow been lost, through time, illness and institutionalization.  And  I began to believe, and become fond of, those storied, storying selves.” (pgs. 104-105)

Are you inspired to listen more and listen better?



Wife, mother, caregiver
Author, blogger (jmgoyder — Wings and Things)
Creative writing lecturer, nursing home volunteer
Bird adventurer, cowboy boot aficionado




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