I was in the Providence, Rhode Island airport, waiting for my flight home. All day I had been craving a burger, so I stopped at a restaurant that looked like it served a good cheeseburger. As I went to sit down, I saw that there wasn’t an empty table, so I wandered around trying to find someone who looked like they would share their space. I saw a woman in business attire quietly eating her dinner so I approached her and asked if I could share her table. She nodded and I sat down and dove into my burger and fries. I took out a book and kept to myself, enjoying the prospect of some quiet time to read and relax. After just a minute or so, the woman said, "My son has cancer."
It took me a second or two to process her statement and then I closed my book and made eye contact with her. She was obviously on a business trip and as she looked at me she smiled slightly. All I could think to say was "I’m so sorry." What do you say when someone begins a conversation like that?
After about fifteen minutes of conversation, I had learned that she travels for business often and that she and her husband have been caring for their adult son since he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. Their son was now completely bed-ridden. She also mentioned that whenever she passes her son’s favorite hamburger place during her travels, she buys a case of their burgers to take home to him. Oh! So that was the connection between her son and my sitting at the table to eat my burger.
Why do I tell you that story? Because in that fifteen minutes, I was reminded of the importance of being an effective listener and about the power of listening to someone who needs us in that moment. I’d like to share some of my thoughts about listening with you.
1. You never know when you will meet someone who has something to say, something that you should listen to. Be open to those moments (even in a busy, anonymous airport).
2. You learn such amazing lessons when you listen. As aresult of that story, I reflected all the way home about my great family and my gratitude for their health.
3. Sometimes people just need you to listen without an agenda. Since the woman and I were strangers, that was easier for me … but it isn’t always easy to listen and be completely unbiased. Strive to really hear them, reserving any judgments or criticisms. Listen just to listen, without inserting your own story or opinions.
4. Asking questions to extend the conversation can lead to exceptional new ideas and understanding. In this case, I simply asked a question periodically as this woman spilled out her story. "When did this happen?" got me to the timeline of her son’s illness. "How often do you travel?" led her to explain about her career field, the decisions she had made in order to compensate for her son’s condition, and gave me a sense of her commitment to family. Without those questions, she might not have continued with her story and I might not have learned a lesson from her experiences.
5. Listen fully: with your ears for their words; with your eyes for visual clues; with your mind for perspective; and with your heart for their feelings. Show full attention and don’t let interruptions sidetrack you.
6. Strive to understand. Keep in mind that understanding does not mean agreement. If it is a difficult or controversial topic, gaining understanding may be all that you can accomplish…but that may be enough.
7. Don’t interrupt; let them proceed in their own way. We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. To truly understand another person’s situation, you should listen much more than you talk.
It seems to me that we spend a lot of time thinking about what we are going to say, and inserting our own experiences into our conversations. When was the last time you simply listened to someone who needed to talk…with an open mind and without any agenda? Try it! They will appreciate it and you will have the opportunity to learn something new.