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  • Wendy Lynch and Clydette de Groot

“I don’t have time to listen.” (What really happens when we let people talk.)

Time is a precious commodity. Over 50% of workers report more stress from lack of time than lack of money. And, when we feel behind, it’s natural to want to save time. Tactics like looking busy (not glancing up from the computer screen) or rushing someone to get to the point can discourage long (or any!) conversations, freeing up precious minutes.

So, it’s not surprising that our conversations are getting shorter. In a recent study, researchers noticed that doctors interrupted patients after eleven seconds on average. (1) Other studies have said 18 to 22 seconds, so let’s just say: patients needed to get to the point quickly. This pattern is not limited to medicine. Interrupting is common in almost every business setting.

Recently, I spoke with a VP whose boss admonished her for “wasting time” talking to subordinates. Any conversation that lasted more than a few minutes was considered a whining session of no value. The reason: “we are too busy and don’t have time to listen to every little complaint.” Not surprisingly, the staff report feeling disconnected from and undervalued by leadership.

But, like the low morale in the VP’s group above, there will likely be other consequences. Restricting input can result in poor decisions, missed opportunities, unnecessary mistakes and hurt feelings. One has to wonder if the time saved today by avoiding a conversation is beneficial in the long run.

Does this really save us time? And at what cost?

In a wonderful essay here a doctor decided to let her patients talk for as long as they wanted without interruption. Her expectation was that, given unlimited opportunity, her patients would begin a never-ending narrative that would destroy her schedule. But she decided to try. She asked the question, “How can I help you today?” and then listened.

The first two people talked for about 30 seconds each. The third, whose concerns were more complicated, spoke for two minutes. For another patient with chronic pain and complex symptoms, the doctor listened patiently to a very long list of concerns. Thinking the monologue must have been ten minutes or more, she looked at the stopwatch and was surprised to find it was only four minutes and seven seconds. She and her patient had a full discussion about every issue, and the appointment only ran slightly past its time.

In addition to realizing the conversation wasn’t as long as she assumed, something more profound happened. She expressed:

I’d read about, but never heard a patient say: “Just talking about all this has actually made me feel better.”

This was first time I’d ever felt good after a visit with a patient with chronic pain — I was actually doing something to help, rather than just rearranging deck chairs. It’s a reminder that doctors sometimes need to zip it up and let the patient talk uninterrupted. Although it may feel like time is being wasted, it could actually make everything much more efficient.

Once patients feel confident they have been heard, there are fewer surprises later. And when all the data are on the table from the outset, there’s a much better chance of getting the diagnosis right on the first go around. Most importantly, a few minutes of solid listening can form a crucial connection between doctor and patient — one of trust, respect, and confidence.

When we intentionally Get to What Matters, something magical happens to a person who is invited to speak. Often, it’s discovery; other times it’s progress or connection or profound realization. Through speaking they can let go, figure things out and feel better. Like the patient who finally spoke about all her concerns, the act of sharing was healing.

So, what might happen if we gave people time to talk – perhaps only 30 seconds or two minutes? When we don’t interrupt, it really isn’t that long. And, more importantly, what are we missing when we cut things short?

Listening itself has value.


1. Singh Ospina N, Phillips KA, Rodriguez-Gutierrez R, et al. Eliciting the Patient's Agenda- Secondary Analysis of Recorded Clinical Encounters. J Gen Intern Med. 2018.

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