Listening and speaking with our hands

In communication, or rather, in face-to-face dialogue with another person, we take turns listening and speaking.

When listening to someone else, do you hear the words while in your head formulating your response, or do you really, simply, listen to what is being said? In the same way, when we work with a patient – whether it is observing movement or working with our hands – do we allow their body to simply speak to us, or do we force what we hear see feel into what we already hold to be true?

In physiotherapy, I believe the mainstream treatment techniques we learn are based on the latter. They are based on an idea that we have decided that we know what is ‘wrong’ with the body, and then we want it to change to what we think it should be. They are based on someone’s research telling us what is the best approach for a certain condition.

Reading that, I hope it sounds ludicrous to you. How can we possibly know what is best for someone else, based on a short interview and physical assessment? We make interpretations of what our patients are saying, feeling, based on what we believe to be true. What we believe to be true is based on a limited incomplete understanding of the body. So where does that leave us with what we subsequently do with our patients?

Being my own devil’s advocate, granted, there are reasons for the above approach. And there is much good will, where we base our treatments on a genuine desire to alleviate suffering. But it might lead us completely off track.

In osteopathy, there is a great expression of listening to the body through feeling with the hands.

Let’s get better at listening. Listening based on curiosity and humility in the face of all that we don’t know. Listening with our ears for sure, but even more so, listening with our hands. What we say is not much to go on. Our memories are fallible, and our descriptions prone to change depending on circumstances, on who is listening, on what we have to gain through what we say. But our bodies cannot lie. Our bodies are the result of a complex life lived; our experiences leave their physical mark. Our bodies remember. As physiotherapists, we have the most valuable tool to explore this: our hands.

Touch is incredibly powerful. Babies desperately need physical human touch to be able to develop normally. Babies can die without physical human touch. As adults, we won’t die without touch, but I don’t believe the need for touch disappears just because we grow up. Rather, in a world that is becoming steadily more technical the need for this is growing.

There is much that can be conveyed through touch. As a therapist, I can listen and speak through my hands. Through listening with my hands, my patients’ bodies will tell me much more than they can put into words. I don’t always understand all their bodies are saying, but I can keep trying. Through speaking with my hands, I need to adjust my language in a way that works for each individual. Words can be confusing, they can be misinterpreted. Just as the body cannot lie, it is hard to lie with our hands. If we can learn to listen and speak with our hands, we convey this. If we don’t, the patient will feel it in the way we use our hands.

Try it. Listen and speak with your hands.

Jenny Wickford