This article has been published in the Vancouver Sun. June 11 2012
The simple act of listening may be one of the most effective and least expensive medicines around. A friend of mine, a physician, told me of an experience when he was working in Ontario as a family practice doctor. After a long and difficult day, seeing countless numbers of very sick individuals, he was faced with a patient who was furious at being kept waiting. He recounted, “My first, instinctual response was to return the anger and tell him the day I was having… but I didn’t. Instead I listened, and the patient’s anger quickly changed as he recounted the list of terrible things that had recently happened in his life. My heart went out to him. I completely understood his anger and more importantly the fuel behind it … grief and fear. I listened and tried to be supportive where I could. Eventually he decided he didn’t really need his prescription refill after all, (he remembered he had refills at the pharmacy), and as we both got up to leave he stopped me at the door and told me he felt so much better than when he had come in! In fact, this was the best he had felt in weeks! I was stunned; what had transpired was truly amazing to me. No high-powered tests, and no potent prescription drugs and yet the patient felt much better. Sometimes the best “medicine” is simply becoming an empathetic, compassionate listener.” …..
Rev. Alisdair Smith, co- founder of the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network, and Deacon of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, spoke with me about this “compassion effect.” His biggest point — compassion is a practical action, and like listening, its effects can be limitless. For those who follow a religious teaching, compassion is grounded in a counsel common to many sacred scripts, “to love your neighbor as yourself.”
There’s a lot of talk about compassion these days – from Karen Armstrong’s recent talk in Vancouver about her work with the Charter of Compassion, to spiritual leaders calling for empathy and understanding in conflict situations. But, as Rev. Alisdair noted, compassion is a feeling, and sometimes in our longing to understand something, we tend to over intellectualize the very concept we are trying to understand. Rev. Smith defines compassion as a moment of spiritual insight. Perhaps the best way to know compassion, and to understand its effects is to go out and practice it – one moment at a time, listening, like my friend the physician.
What might be the larger outcomes of practical acts of compassion in health care?
In a recent interview published in the Boston Globe, by Dr. Helen Riess, Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital states that her studies show compassionate listening by doctors improves interactions with patients, lessens patient fears, relieves stress on doctors and would save significant amounts of money.
So then, compassion’s effect becomes a healing balm for both the giver as well as the receiver.
Rev. Smith noted that compassion is not “feeling sorry” for someone, it is about understanding them from the heart. “We are in a time of great upheaval and transformation,” Rev. Smith said. “[I often ask myself], is there something in my behavior that imprisons another human being?” All around us are moments of fear, suffering and distress. What are we called to do about it? How do we deal with our family conflicts, the difficult man in the office, the homeless on our streets? The sick? By understanding where another person is coming from— we can take the right course of action to understand those around us.”
At a critical moment, the right course of action for my friend, the physician, was listening, and listening brought him some relief and helped the patient feel better without further tests. This simple act has the potential to really make a difference in the health of our communities in ways that are profound.
Published on June 11 2012 on Spiritually Speaking in the Times Colonist