Thursday, April 15, 2010

Piece of Advice #22: Listen

Sometimes the best thing that you can do for someone or your relationship with someone is to simply listen.  Spend some time concentrating on what they are saying -  not tuning out, not double tasking, just listening and giving them the respect of your full attention.  We all like to talk and be heard, but if no one is doing the job on the other end, it's pointless monologing.

The world is full of people in pain - small and large - and often they don't want or need you to fix their problems, they want someone to listen to them.  Back in the mid-1990's I did some volunteer work with refugees from Bosnia.  These were people who had literally lost everything but their lives.  Their families had been broken up and shipped to other countries, their homes had been invaded or destroyed.  They lost the ability to live in their native country, in their native culture.  Their jobs and money and photos and other possessions were all lost to the Serbs' aggression.

There wasn't anything I could do to change or restore any of this.  Sure, I helped them by filling out loads of bureaucratic forms, translating, and getting them settled into their new lives.  But the thing that seemed to make the most difference was that I sat and listened to their stories.  Sometimes I cried with them as they told them, sometimes not.  I was not sure what to say at first when they would finish, but I found that a simple "I'm so sorry that happened to you." was appropriate.

Today I was in line at the half-off bread store.  It was taking awhile to check out, so I wound up in passing conversation with the man behind me about Dr. Seuss.  Because I am a book geek and a children's librarian, I threw out a factoid, and then made to leave.  He followed me out and started to talk.  There was almost no segue - he moved into his anger at the local public schools for not allowing him to express any sort of authority over the kids he taught, then to his daughter's experience in the schools, and then to the fact that he had just gotten divorced, something he initiated when he "found out she was sleeping with everyone but me."  To get joint custody of his daughter, he'd had to fight hard in court and spend tens of thousands of dollars, and his ex-wife was still trying to ruin their relationship.

I listened to him.  My son was monkeying around in the car and being distracting, but this man was obviously quite distraught, and his love for and pride in his daughter came through clearly.  He was trying to pull together what he could out of the situation.  I told him, "What you are doing is important.  Your daughter needs her father.  It is so important that you keep spending time with her and parenting her.  Your ex-wife should not be trying to undermine your relationship; she should be supporting your authority.  I'm sorry this has happened to you, but she definitely needs you."

And there it was.  His expression changed.   His posture changed.  He sagged a little in relief, looking almost wonderingly at this evidence that anyone else could think his relationship with his daughter had value.  How sad.

Dear sir: I don't know who you are, but I'm glad I was able to give you the listen you clearly needed today.  Please keep on fighting the fight to be a significant part of your daughter's life.

Listening is an undervalued service, but it is one that builds social cred.  We all need someone to listen sometimes, so practice the skill so that people will want to listen to you when you experience the hurt life sometimes doles out.


  1. Thanks for listening to that man. You are a very kind and decent person.

  2. whatever man. that guy was a dumbass for marrying and having children in the first place.

  3. Grerp - excellent again. This sort of attention starvation is all too common in the United States, where people are "lonely in their hearts" as Milosz said. Here's an interesting piece on attention that you may find very interesting.