People in the Deaf community would consider it "a slap in the face" to look away from someone trying to communicate, so Dr. Stern doesn't flip through her charts or look away when her patients talk. She sits, facing them, with an attitude of openness and availability. She has to if she's going to "hear" what they have to say. And she really listens. "Because it's hard, and even considered rude, to take notes while someone is signing, people who are Deaf often have more highly developed memory skills than hearing people do."
So says Nathaniel Reade in his article "See What I'm Saying," a profile of Dr. Stern in Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine.
And, while studies suggest the average doctor will interrupt a patient after just 18 seconds, Dr. Stern listens without interruption, offers quiet encouragement, and lets her patient speak until she is completely done. She repeats back what she hears; she asks follow-up questions, she makes sure her patient feels heard.
"Good listening is active; it requires a back-and-forth between speaker and listener. The goal should be a maximum amount of overlapped understanding between the two," the article continues.
Because people who are Deaf use a visual language, says the author, they often see things the rest of us miss. "Deaf people are highly attuned to visual nonverbal behaviors, a quality which lends itself well to health-care-related interviews," says the AMA's Christopher Moreland, also Deaf. "While the words are important, equally important is observing how a person express those words, in particular picking up on hints that something has been left unspoken."
The ability to recognize and articulate nonverbal communication signs is one of the most important skills of active listening. Dr. Stern - who knows what it is to struggle for communication - has mastered it.
What is there here for the rest of us?
"The value of good listening isn't just confined to medicine. We spend about a quarter of our day listening, more than any other communication activity. Our culture gives prizes and presidencies to great speakers, but most of us wouldn't know how to be good at the 'important and neglected art' of listening. Yet studies show that good listening leads to better performance in everything from marriage to business."Listening well cuts company turnover, increases customer satisfaction, nurtures trust, saves relationships.
I don't have Dr. Stern's "handicap" and probably you don't either. But I see great room to improve in my listening: to let someone finish their thought; to "hear" both the words and the nonverbals, to clarify and repeat back and respond and remember what has been said: to make it my goal to have a "maximum overlap of shared understanding." By such standards, who of us is not - in the most negative sense - deaf?
Sorry, my original source for this story, the Southwest Airlines magazine, is no longer accessible online - January 2011 edition? Several other articles about Dr. Stern can be easily found in an internet search, however.