Active Listening

Foreword by Steve

As some readers may have noticed, the British Medical Journal ended Dalrymple’s “Between the Lines” column this past December. It’s a shame, because these were very enjoyable little columns that combined both of Dalrymple’s parallel careers. We remarked more than once how impressive was his intellect that he was able to write, once per week for at least (by our count) five years and on top of all of his other responsibilities as a doctor and a writer, a column on the subject of medicine in literature.

Fortunately for us, he not only wrote so many of these columns, but he wrote them well in advance. When the column ended, he had a large backlog of unpublished pieces, and he has asked us to publish them on Skeptical Doctor. We will run one per week, on Wednesdays, just as they were published at the BMJ. This gives us over a year’s worth of such pieces. Enjoy.

Somerset Maugham, the great doctor-author, once said that he would rather read a railway timetable than nothing at all, and I am of that ilk. One of the few lessons that life has taught me is never to go anywhere without a book, for then delay cannot irritate, and indeed (if it is a good book) can delight. A life of frustration is thereby transformed into a life of pleasure.

But no one ever keeps entirely to his principles, and recently I found myself walking in a provincial city without a book. Worse still, I had no notebook with me when suddenly I was struck by an idea for an article. My memory not being what it once was (or what I think it once was), I felt the need to write down my idea at once. I went into a stationer’s and bought an exercise book.

In my childhood such books had on their covers information about how many drachmas made a grain and how many rods and poles made a perch (or was it the other way round?). But now that we have the metric system – so dull by comparison – to blunt our brains, we need different information, a different stimulus, from the covers of our exercise books. The one I bought taught ‘Active reading and listening skills for your studies, work and life.’ There was enough in it to read and keep me occupied if the bus came late; by thus purchasing it, I had killed two birds with one stone. Not bad for £2.99!

One learns a lot from casually-encountered sources, I find. For example, ‘Active reading’ involves, among other things, understanding what is written; one’s notes should always be appropriate. But now that so much of doctors’ time is taken up by meetings, it was the section on ‘Active listening’ that I found most illuminating.

When you are at a committee meeting and some boring fool is droning on, proposing something absurd because some bigger boring fool higher up the ladder has told him to propose it, ‘smile and use other facial expressions’ (not grimaces, of course), and ‘nod occasionally’ (but not from sleep). You ‘should encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments such as “Yes” and “uh-uh,”’ and you should ‘Note your posture and make sure it’s open and inviting.’

In the world of active listening skills, there is no one who is ill-intentioned or needs no encouragement to continue speaking. That is why you must remember that ‘Active listening is a model for respect and understanding.’ At no time must you ever be distracted by the thought that the speaker is a time-serving apparatchik who would sell his mother for a team-building away-day (with or without a vegetarian option for lunch), let alone promotion to the post of Director of Co-ordination. ‘Responding appropriately’ is one of the five keys to ‘Active listening’ and never includes anything as vigorous as disagreement, let alone scorn: for appropriate is now as weaselly a word as ‘valid,’ as (for example) in ‘My opinion is as valid as yours.’

Am I imagining it, or are we living in a world of increasingly inescapable exhortatory platitude, from which an awareness of the tragic dimension of life has been expunged by ‘active reading and listening skills’? If you doubt it, I can only advise the following, with regard to this article:

Once you have read appropriate sections, run through the key information in your mind several times. Isolate the core facts or essential processes…

And then scream.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

13 thoughts on “Active Listening

  1. agatha

    Haha! This reminds me of why I left the NHS. Team away-days are a real scandal – what a waste of time and public money – do they benefit the patients? Well… no, in a word. My team went on a day out to IKEA once, at taxpayers expense! I hate the word ‘appropriate’ too.

  2. Clare

    Enjoyable and amusing. Although does anyone else think this is not as well written as other TD articles? It lacks his trademark finesse and panache (although maybe lack of sleep has made me grumpy)

  3. Liviu Serbanescu

    Could you please apply a suitable formatting for this article? It is not a casual posting of an amateur, so its value as a Theodore Dalrymple piece should be reflected by its visual presentation. Thank you.

    1. Steve

      Dear Liviu,

      Future articles will not have the introductory paragraphs that this one has. I added a couple of returns before the piece itself to separate it from the introduction above. (Sometimes a post formats differently than how it was written.) We welcome any other suggestions you might have.

      Thank you,

      1. Liviu Serbanescu

        Thank you for the prompt reply, and for the whole work you do on – it means a lot for me and I’m sure for many others, also.

      2. William Vaughan

        Please respect Mr. Dalrymple by using correct English. It is “different from”, not “different than”. ” than” indicates a comparative value, such as bigger than, slower than, better than, etc. “Different than” is meaningless.

        Thank you, and keep up the good work.

        1. Gavin


          Don’t you think it’s a bit of a cheek to come on this site and tell the very writers who bring you this information how they should write? If you think they were wrong (which is questionable anyway, given they are writing in American English) then you could at least make your objection in a more polite manner.

          Funny how people tend to criticise then say “keep up the good work”. As I have said to others before, I’m sure they will anyway.


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