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Teaching Older People to Become Better Listeners to Avoid Alienating Others

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: communication skills for the elderly.

RS: And to teach it to them is George Shames, professor emeritus in psychology and communications disorders at the University of Pittsburgh. Last year, he began a short course for older people that draws on some basic skills used in counseling.

AA: Professor Shames says he came upon the idea accidentally. He taught a course where his young students had to find a partner to interview during the course of a semester. Some chose older people in retirement communities. Professor Shames says older people want to share what they have learned about life.

GEORGE SHAMES: "But they don't know how to do it in a way that is acceptable to their listeners, because they are often judgmental, they often give advice and tell people how to do things. And that can very easily alienate a younger person and turn them off, to the point where the older person just doesn't get an opportunity to share these world experiences and the wisdom that they have accumulated."

RS: "What would you say are the skills to be a good communicator?"

GEORGE SHAMES: "Well, being a good communicator, generally you have to be a good listener. And it's not a matter of listening and then immediately focusing on yourself, but staying focused on the person who's trying to share with you. And there are ways to learn that, to learn what it means to be a good listener.

"I'll give you an example of a listening project. I get the class in there -- and they pair off, by the way. They work in groups in terms of the doing part of it. So one of the things that I have them do as a group, I just say in terms of listening, 'I want you to say exactly what I say right after I say it.' So I say yes, and the whole class says yes. And then I say well, and the whole class says well. Now what I'm doing is, I'm getting them into the mode of repeating exactly what they hear me say."

RS: "You're also getting their attention."

GEORGE SHAMES: "And getting their attention. And your nonverbal and body language is extremely important to being a good listener. You're not looking out a window or at your watch or anything else, but you've got good eye contact, you're close enough -- but not too close. You're close enough so that they know that you're in touch with them.

"So what I do is have them do what I just said three times in a row. When they're successful, I then add another word. I say 'OK, now I'm going to say two words: yes but.' And I do that three times. And I gradually build that up to twelve words that they can exactly repeat."

AA: "Which is not what you're suggesting they would actually do in an conversation, though."

GEORGE SHAMES: "Oh, no, not at all. No, it has nothing to do with the conversation. It has to do with the skill of listening."

RS: "And where do you go from there?"

GEORGE SHAMES: "OK, from there, then, we go into some behaviors that are designed to get a person to talk to you. Well, what you do is you say things like, 'And tell me' -- actually it can be with open questions. 'What would you like to talk to me about today?' That's an open question. Or, 'Why don't you tell me about your family?' That's an open instruction.

"You get these encouragements that -- they're minimal encouragers, like you say yes, uh-huh, I understand, tell me more, I don't understand, could you explain that to me more? These are all minimal encouragers to get the person to talk more. You're not judging it, you're not even paraphrasing it, you're just encouraging it.

"Sometimes, just saying the last word of something that somebody says to you -- for example, they say, 'Well, today I had a pretty rough day.' And as the counselor you would say 'a rough day,' and that then stimulates them to pick up on it and tell you more.

"And from there, you can go into specific kinds of behaviors like paraphrasing the content. So if somebody tells you something, then you put it into your own words and then you feed it back to them. Reflecting feeling is another thing. Now these all come from counseling. By the way, what I call this course when I teach it, it's called 'Communicating as a Real-Life Encounter.'"

RS: And next week, Professor Emeritus George Shames begins his second year of teaching this course at the University of Pittsburgh. He also teaches it through the Academy of Lifelong Learning, housed at Carnegie Mellon University, also in Pittsburgh.

AA: George Shames is retired not only as a psychologist, but also as a speech pathologist and authority on stuttering. He now writes fiction, and has just authored a crime novel about the struggles of a young man who stutters. The book is called "The Company of Truth."

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is and our segments are online at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.