The importance of active listening in heath and care practice

December 13, 2023

Health Innovation Network (HIN) South London has been working alongside the Health Foundation’s Q Network to launch the Communities of Practice Leadership Development Programme. This is an immersive learning course that was launched in January 2019 to offer health and care staff all of the building blocks for effective community practice leadership. Current participant Rona Inniss, a nurse working in a London teaching hospital, shares her reflections from her participation in the last Communities of Practice leadership development programme.

I am a nurse, working in a London teaching hospital. Before studying nursing and gaining my professional registration, I studied and worked in architecture. This year I started an ICA Pre-doctoral Clinical and Practitioner Academic Fellowship (PCAF) focused on hospital environments. I will continue the fellowship part time over the next 18 months with the intention of submitting a PhD proposal through the Doctoral Clinical and Practitioner Academic Fellowship (DCAF) scheme at the end of 2024.

As part of the training plan that I put together, I applied for and was offered a place on the HIN South London Communities of Practice (CoP) Leadership Development Programme running from January 2023. I wanted to do the CoP programme because I was interested in less hierarchical and more collaborative ways of working. I have found the modules, guest speakers and tools, and the group working and reflection incredibly valuable. For me the most important tools have been those that foster an environment of authentic communication and dialogue. Over the years, I’ve done many courses and training that have had elements focused on active listening, but this is the first course that really supports the genuine processes of listening, engaging, and honestly reflecting.

Although each module focuses on a different element and style of leadership, the importance of listening has run through each module and session. The tools are often very simple and tend to boil down to permitting each other to talk openly while others listen with compassion, without judgment, and without the need to immediately react and respond.

One powerful tool asks people to sit in a space together (virtually or face-to-face) and take it in turns to talk while the others listen without interrupting or reacting. Knowing that you will be given the opportunity to speak without having to interject, and that you will be listened to, slowed the conversation, and allowed everyone to have their ideas heard. It stopped the usual voices from dominating and forced us all to reflect on what was really being said before we responded. I found that fleeting thoughts were lost as the dialogue was passed from person to person before I had my chance to speak. By listening fully to what was being articulated without mentally preparing what I was going to say or listening for a gap in the flow to interrupt, the conversation felt richer and more meaningful.

Like all my colleagues in the NHS, we are working under tremendous pressure. When you and your team barely have time to carry out the fundamentals of your role, it feels like taking the time to indulge in listening exercises is an unnecessary luxury. I would argue that exercises are always valuable, but right now, working in near constant crisis mode, the act of listening is more vital than ever. As a result, I am doing what I can to make sure that communication I lead is reflective and allows everyone space to speak. It is easy to forget the power of listening, in the heat of each exhausting and often demoralising day, I struggle to find the time and energy to listen. For me, this course is a reminder to continue to try harder to act with compassion and to really listen to my colleagues and patients.

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