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How losing my tongue taught me the power of listening

You know you have a communication issue when your tongue refuses to cooperate with your brain.

That was my situation twenty years ago when I returned to the UK after my first ever year abroad - half in the US, half in France. I’d been well prepared for the culture shock of living away. I hadn’t considered the reverse shock of being back home.

What I needed most was to slow down, rest and catch up with myself after an intense twelve months. Instead, like a good soldier reporting for duty, I went right out and started work. To my astonishment, several times during those initial few weeks I found myself struggling to speak. Words came out choked or in the wrong sequence.

That experience came back to me with recent media reports that the Hollywood star Bruce Willis is retiring after being diagnosed with aphasia. Aphasia is an acquired loss of language skills due to brain injury, impairing the person’s ability to speak, read or write.

While my condition was mild and temporary, it leads me to identify with Willis in at least two ways. First, it was socially debilitating and sapped my confidence. Second, there was nothing wrong mentally: I knew what I wanted to say - it just all came out all wrong.

Looking back, I realise now I was suffering from a simple case of stress. Exhausted and overwhelmed, my brain sensed danger and did as it's designed to do: flood me with stress hormones to help me fight or flee. I should’ve indeed fled - to a lounger on a Mediterranean beach or at least to a horizontal chillout position at home for two weeks.

The fight or flight instinct, while perfect for the African savannah, is less suited to the kind of threats we face today, such as to our careers, reputation or status. The result is that we’re left in the absurd situation that our brains sacrifice our ability to communicate just when we need it most!

My experience brought home to me that there are many reasons why someone may appear to lack speaking skills. These include illness, stress, trauma, shyness, or simply the suspicion that one won’t really be heard. In such situations, the apparent ‘problem’ of the speaker in fact highlights the key role of the listener.

As I suspect Bruce Willis will find, whatever our speaking abilities, effective communication is always possible with a patient, compassionate listener. I also suspect that at some stage, if you’re anything like me, you may need that good listener to be yourself.

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