My daughter, Mary, is a high school English teacher in Seattle. One morning as her students entered her classroom, she met them with a box and asked them to drop in their cell phones, saying they’d receive them back at the end of class. Most students complied with no comment. Some initially resisted, but eventually placed their phones in the box.
Mary had arranged the desks in her room in a circle so the class could read and discuss a very meaningful poem. She placed the phone box in the center of the circle so her students would know their phones were safe. “Everyone comfortable?” she asked. Everyone agreed they were okay with the plan. Then she said, “Here’s your job, right here, right now. Actively listen to every person talking. Actively participate with your own thoughts, and be assured that everyone will listen.”
Mary noticed that when no one could take a quick peek at their phones during class they were focused, connected to each other, attentive to the comments made by other students, and their thinking was deeper than usual. Mary told me, “That extra layer of distraction was gone. It made all the difference — and the students noticed and commented on it, too.” At the end of the class she gave her students their phones back one minute before the bell rang, and in that minute, guess what happened? The students were glued to their phones.
I reflected on this example of listening recently as I helped minister to a man I’ll call Frederick who was dying in one of our ICUs. He’d been transported by air from another state and was alone without his family. Doctors told him his heart simply was stopping and there was nothing to be done to help him. The medication he was receiving was only a temporary remedy, and when it was removed, he’d die. The man told me and his other care providers, “Well, you’re my hospital family, and I’m depending on you to get me through this to the next life.” I asked him what we could do to support him. He laughed and said, “Listen to me. That’s what I want.” We listened and responded to fulfill his end-of-life wishes.
On one of my visits to Frederick, he asked how I’d pray for him when he was dying. I said I’d pray in any way he’d like. He said, “I want you to pray like you’d want someone to pray for you when you’re dying.”
When Frederick was nearing death, he was in and out of consciousness as I sat with him and prayed with him. I found myself in the quiet of his unconscious breathing one day, and after sitting there a while I found myself wanting to check my phone. It wasn’t necessary, but it was tempting. I remembered how I’d promised to pray for Frederick the way I’d want someone to pray for me when I was dying. I thought: No, I didn’t want someone there who was watching over me to check their phone! I want that person to be present with me. Being with someone who’s dying is holy. I thought about the quick peeks at their phones my daughter’s students wanted to take — so quick they were practically harmless — but I thought: That would compromise my time with Frederick. It would disrupt my focus. I turned my phone off and continued to listen to Fredrick’s breath, prayed for him, and was present in the quiet. Would Frederick have known if I checked my phone? Probably not. But I knew — and I chose to remain focused. I don’t always get it right but this time I think I did.
Listening is hard work. A study by the University of Missouri, titled “Listening: Our Most-Used Communication Skill,” reports that we spend about 45 percent of our time listening, yet we comprehend only 25 percent of what we hear. In his book Stillness Speaks, Echart Tolle says, “True listening is the arising of alert attention, a space of presence in which words are being received.” It takes real desire to listen and to be present for each and every person we meet.
I invite you to join me in putting your phone and any other distractions aside and really listening to the people you talk with, at work and at home. I think you’ll find what my daughter found in her classroom and what I found with Frederick: Being present with whoever you’re with — a patient, a colleague, a child, your spouse — is the best gift you can give them.