Holidays are a great time to listen

People yearn for a listening ear.

One of my readers once wrote a melancholy email telling me no one was listening to her. Her children were far away, and when they came to visit, they talked to each other and not to her. She had things to say — no one was listening.

During the holidays, families spend time with one another in ways that never occur the rest of the year. Entire days are filled with talking and reminiscing. Stories are told, and with the balm of the years, previously unknown facts surface.

Family discussions during holiday get-togethers have helped me come to recognize the portly cat we had when our kids were teenagers did in fact eat the pet gerbils (they were not “donated to a friend” as my 13-year-old stepson suggested at the time). And a few years ago I came to fully understand that the never-explained gouge in the girls’ bedroom wall really was an accident that occurred during a playful moment, not a mean-spirited one.

In every family we need revealing, full-of-laughter exchanges. We need more moments where family history is revisited, even rethought, and communication between family members is rich and spirited. Times when people don’t just talk, they really listen. And at these times, the best family discussions include the oldest-old, for they are often the ones who have the most poignant revelations.

Through listening I learned that my 90-year-old mother had a brief flirtation on a train when she was young, and the moment stayed in her heart forever. I listened well, one special afternoon more than a decade ago, and learned my father-in-law’s pride in his ability to quit smoking rivaled any other accomplishment in his life. Those listening moments were unparalleled in their fragile specialness for me. Communication was whole and complete. I want more of those moments, so I am on a mission to try to improve my listening skills. It’s a gift I intend to give my family and myself this holiday season.

What I have learned so far is that good listening is not passive, it’s “active.” It means focusing on the person who is speaking with your whole self, embracing them with all your attentions, listening with your eyes and your ears.

Dean Rusk, former U.S. statesman, was reportedly a very good listener who felt, “One of the best ways to persuade other people is with your ears.”

Joy Loverde, an elder-care specialist, believes listening is all about respect. Dr. Carl Rogers, a psychoanalyst — and some might say the ultimate listening expert — believed effective listening involved reflecting back words and mirroring feelings. Some people say good listening hinges on what you choose not to say. Others believe in the Golden Rule of Listening: “Listen to others as you would have them listen to you.”

I once observed a small child sitting on the lap of his wheelchair-using grandmother. He was talking about his day and speaking directly into her hearing-aided ear. She was intently absorbing his every word. When she responded, he received her affirmations with all his attentions completely on her. Then he gently stroked her cheek. It was a gift exchange.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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