You can’t really know someone else’s story until you listen

We all have opinions, and there are plenty of times when we want to interject those thoughts into a conversation because we believe we’ll improve a person’s situation. 

Maybe we simply disagree with what we see, or what we think we see. Or we don’t like what we hear, or what we think we hear. The question is, are we really listening? Did our associate, neighbor, spouse or child actually ask for our opinion? Are we truly bringing value to the person who is investing their trust in us, perhaps even opening a vein and sharing something they have not told anyone? Or are we using the conversation as a pulpit to forward our own agenda, speak our mind and say what we feel like saying? 

So many times, we forget what others are asking us to do is to simply listen. Just listen. Maybe the conversation starts with, “Can I tell you something?” Or, “I’m frustrated about … ” Or, “I can’t stop thinking about … ” Or another opener that precedes a story. Do you recognize that your role is to listen? 

I admit I often miss the cue. I realize after I’ve given my opinion — and I’ve been known to have strong, direct thoughts that I do not hold back — that I would have been more helpful by letting the person know that I’m here to listen. Listening is extremely challenging. It requires an open mind and heart, with no judging. And, sometimes, listening means seeing and being present in a situation so you can fully appreciate the scenario and embrace the gifts of others. 

Here’s a situation when I recognized I needed to listen with my eyes and heart. Bishop Roger Gries told me this story, and it really stuck with me. He was sitting in church and glanced across the aisle at a younger boy with long hair. It reached past his shoulders, and He thought it looked shaggy and the boy should get it cut. What was this kid doing with long hair? He wondered why the boy’s parents weren’t pushing him to the barbershop. 

After Mass, the boy asked him, “Hey, what do you think about my long hair?” Then, he went on, “I have a girl in my class with bad cancer. And I’m growing my hair so I can donate it to an organization that makes wigs for children who are cancer patients.” 

Here was this young boy doing something so genuinely thoughtful, so selfless to benefit his friend and other sick children. He had a much greater purpose than growing hair to rebel against his parents or teachers, or for some other trivial reason. He didn’t care what people thought about him. He was doing this for a friend. 

Listen, don’t judge.

Another story from Bishop Gries — he noticed a man who was not kneeling during the times in the Mass when we are called to kneel and pray. He wondered why the man was not being reverent. Why was he not kneeling? Well, it turned out the reason that man wasn’t kneeling was because both his knees had been replaced.

So, he was there, sitting during Mass — but he was there. He was there like every one of us, no different, except he was not kneeling. This is yet another reminder: Don’t judge. You don’t know what others are going through in their personal lives.

In business, you don’t know everything going on in employees’ homes, what their lives are like or whether they’re struggling with an issue they have trouble “checking at the door.” We’re all human. We’re imperfect. We cannot compartmentalize every aspect of our life and operate like robots. I try to remember this in business so I can lead with compassion and be a listener. It’s not easy to do.

I remind myself constantly to not judge, but to listen, watch, and learn from others. We should never judge; we likely don’t know the whole story. What if the person who seems stressed and short at work is struggling with a divorce?

Whether someone is facing a drug or alcohol problem, a broken arm, an illness, a headache, whatever— when we judge we become part of the problem rather than an empathetic listener who can lift that person up by simply being there with an open heart and mind.

Listen, don’t judge. This is not easy to do, but if we practice by putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we can begin to understand. Then, we can become better friends, neighbors, parents and leaders. You never know where another person is coming from, where they’ve been. Work to understand and learn. This is how we can become better people.

Umberto P. Fedeli is president and CEO at The Fedeli Group