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The Company You Keep
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THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
The transforming power of male friendship
David C. Bentall

Chapter 9

Does Anyone Really Listen to You?

Covenant of Sensitivity: Even as I desire to be known and understood by you, I covenant to be sensitive to you and to your needs to the best of my ability. I will try to hear you, see you, and feel where you are, and I will try to draw you out of discouragement or withdrawal.

o you ever wish there was someone who would just sit back and listen to you — no matter what you have to say? It was a late Friday afternoon in the fall of 1988, but I remember my feelings as if it were yesterday. I had been working long hours, for days on end, as president of our family company. When I turned off the lights in my office and got set to leave, I realized that I was going to miss dinner with the kids — again! It was the umpteenth time that month, and now I had let them down one more time. I had also let my wife down and, if the truth were known, I had let myself down. I didn't want life to be this way.

As I took the elevator to the ground floor of our office building and strolled across the plaza toward the parkade, I glanced up at the reflecting pool and the bust of my grandfather, the man after whom the five office towers of the Bentall Centre are named. I felt as if he was looking down at me with disappointment. He had been such a great man and always seemed to have things under control. So why couldn't I keep my life together?

All my failures began to flood my consciousness: I wasn't making the progress that I hoped for with our company, despite ten years of trying; I wasn't doing a very good job as a father, despite fifteen years of effort; I wasn't succeeding in building a happy, fulfilling marriage after almost twenty years; and I didn't feel like a very good disciple of Christ, even after thirty years. My shoulders slumped. As I shuffled toward the door of the garage, I punched Bob's number into my cell phone. He responded to my broken voice with the innocent question, "What's wrong?" Out tumbled a tirade of my seeming failures.

"I'm a failure at work, a failure at home, and a failure in everything I do!" I listed the board that I served on and lamented my inadequacy in my contribution to this group too. I then reflected on my fitness goals and how, there too, I had failed. On top of all this, I also felt the need to point out that I didn't read enough books, didn't keep up with letters to my friends, and so on. The list was endless. Bob just listened.

Once I finished, Bob remained quiet for a moment longer. Then he simply said, "You can't do everything you're trying to do. You need to give yourself some grace." At first his words didn't make sense, but as I let them sink in, they began to unshackle me. He was right. I needed to cut myself some slack. Bob could see I was overwhelmed and he responded by giving me permission to not have to do everything I was trying to do.

Don't get me wrong. It's important to work hard, and it's right to be committed to your family and other responsibilities. It's good to stay fit and to sharpen your mind by reading. At some point, however, we will all find ourselves failing if we try to do it all. On those occasions we can all use a friend who will come alongside us and really listen to what resides in our hearts. Bob gave me a great gift that day. In his gentle, reassuring way, he said that no matter what my accomplishments were or weren't, he still loved me — and God still loved me.

Listening with Sensitivity and Respect

As a friend, Bob has always been a great listener, and I am strengthened in knowing that he has pledged to listen to me for the rest of our lives. Years ago our friendship grew substantially as we regularly ran four or five miles together before work several times a week. Our fitness and running skills improved, but an added benefit was that as we ran, Bob patiently listened as I spilled out my difficulties, especially my confusion and stress in both my work and marriage. He heard the cry of my heart and encouraged me to press on. His caring response enabled me to get through those days.

Carson's listening skills have also been invaluable. I'll never forget the day he came over to our house just after Alison and I had experienced one of our darkest, most discouraging times together. I was upstairs in my bedroom with tears staining my cheeks. Carson came in the back door and asked Alison, on a scale of 1 to 10, how things were in our relationship. She said "minus 400!" Carson came upstairs and found me stretched out on our bed, unable to cope. He didn't try to fix things but simply said, "I'm here. What's going on?" The words were simple, but they gave me the opportunity to speak. He listened as I poured out my heart, and before long I was able to go downstairs and rejoin Alison in a spirit of forgiveness and renewal.

Bob Shares His Thoughts on Listening

Bob: Henri Nouwen writes, "The mystery of one man is too immense and too profound to be explained by another man." So how can we really understand the life experiences and problems of others? Each of us is so different. That is certainly true of David and me.

I was born into humble circumstances and grew up as part of a large, extended family that shared life on a farm in the Okanagan Valley. We had little in the way of material wealth. On the other hand, David was definitely from the right side of the tracks; he was well known, well to do, and very urban. As our friendship developed, I found our differences intimidating — I didn't know that I could contribute anything to an asset-rich life, and a circumstance and life experience that I did not understand.

Ironically, it was David's father who taught me how to bridge this gulf of personal histories. Each week, Clark Bentall would invite a special guest to lunch on the thirty-second floor of Bentall Three (or occasionally at the Vancouver Club). As in-house legal counsel to the Bentall Group, I was often invited to tag along (although I sometimes felt like a street urchin being treated kindly by the rich neighbors). Clark always made a point of making me feel welcome. He often seated me beside him at the long, mahogany table beautifully set with fine silverware and china. In his kind and gentlemanly way, Clark taught me the skill of listening. He didn't just passively sit there nodding between mouthfuls. Instead, he asked probing questions that required our guests to disclose important, valuable, and even personal information. While some might have characterized this process as self-serving, I would beg to differ. We certainly learned a great deal at those mealtime meetings, but in most cases the information was utilized to enable Clark to better serve these clients, his community, and his company. Never once did I hear of any betrayal of confidences or improper use of information gained at one of those lunches.

Lawyers tend to be much better talkers than listeners. Law schools teach them how to speak but fail to mention effective listening skills. I was inclined no differently. But as I observed Clark, first listening, then asking probing questions, I found myself striving to emulate him. I wanted to listen to understand, not necessarily to respond. Suddenly my questions became more important than my answers.

It is curious that the simple act of listening can be such a gift. It rarely results in a profound solution but perhaps there is a talking cure if only someone will listen. This is biblical as well — one of God's greatest gifts to us is his willingness to tirelessly listen to us. As I practice this with David or Carson (or as they listen to me), I am able to effectively communicate care and acceptance. They feel understood — even if I can't assist in the actual solving of the problem. It enables a cathartic process or unburdening to occur and trust to be built. Listening has truly built a bridge between our worlds and, in the process, David and I have both felt more loved and accepted.

Listening Is Good . . . but Look for Clues before You Respond

By giving others our full attention as they speak to us, we are not only more likely to understand what they are trying to tell us, but we also give respect and honor to the friendship or relationship. Every relationship would benefit by this, but sometimes respect and sensitivity only happen once we make a conscious change in our patterns of relating to others. I've wrestled with this problem personally, but I've discovered that both these qualities come more readily when I take time to utilize the following simple steps:

1. Observe what's happening to others.

2. Consider their needs and feelings.

3. Respond with appropriate words and actions.

1. Observe. Many of us wander through life oblivious to the feelings and needs of others. But if we are observant, we can learn to be aware of how others are feeling by noticing their body language. It doesn't take much study to perceive whether someone is relaxed and comfortable or uptight and fidgety. As we read the signs we can adjust how we approach that person. These same observational skills need to be practiced in our interaction with friends. If someone's body language changes or if the person doesn't seem quite himself, we should take the time to ask why.

2. Consider. The second step is to consider what we do and how it may affect others. That is, we need to pay attention to how others' feelings and/or needs are affected by what we say and do. A classic Harvard Business Review article explains how we can get insights into others' emotions by listening to what they say through their "word metaphors." For example, if a colleague says he "struck out" with a particular client, we can deduce that business for him today feels like a baseball game. He may be discouraged, but it still feels like good, healthy competition. On the other hand, if he says, he was "blown out of the water," he may be feeling more like he is at war. He may be disappointed but might also feel afraid or fearful about his livelihood. I wouldn't attempt to read too much into such phrases, but they can give us terrific insight into how others are feeling.

3. Respond. By choosing to take into account how others appear through their body language, the words they use and what we already know about their feelings, we can adjust our words and behaviors to be more sensitive in how we respond. There is one particular time that I recall using these three elements in an attempt to assist an employee. I was sitting at my desk, at one of our family company's division offices. By just glancing up, I could see most of our managers as they arrived at work and walked past my office door. However, as it often is in a busy office, everyone was eager to get a jump on the day's projects, so they would rarely stop to greet me in the morning.

One day, I looked up as a coworker passed by my office. I noticed that his body language seemed different somehow. He seemed stooped and heavy, and just looking at him made me wonder if something was wrong. I followed him to his office and asked if everything was all right. At first, he put up a brave front, but I wasn't convinced. In fact, even as he talked, I could sense that he was hurting. I gently probed further. He then broke down and told me that his teenage daughter had just run away from home! We ended up talking at great length, and I was able to offer him some support and encouragement.

After observing this man's body language as he walked by my office door, I chose to act on that observation and take time to listen to him. I then considered his specific needs. Based on both my observations and my considerations of his needs as I talked to him. Lastly, I was able to respond with a word of encouragement and some support. There was nothing elaborate about what I did; it was three simple steps that any of us can take. But in choosing to take those steps, I made a significant difference to one man's life. It also served as a good reminder to me to be more observant of others, especially those close to me.

C o n c l u s i o n

Well-known counselor and author Dr. Larry Crabb says, "Speaking is the gateway to relationship. Silence is the gatekeeper." Transformational friendships require that men truly listen to one another with sensitivity and respect. Carson, Bob, and I have been able to do that by habitually taking time to observe how we are doing, taking time to consider what impact our words might have on one another, and then carefully adjusting our responses to reflect what we have heard and observed.

These important skills have benefited our covenant relationship, but they are applicable to other relationships as well. Taking time to respond works to build trust in any relationship .

I admit that I used to be a selfish listener and focused most of my conversational energy on preparing what I wanted to say. However, I have discovered how wonderful it is when others listen deeply to me. As a consequence, I am trying to actively develop this skill, whether it is in discussions with my wife, family, friends, or business associates.

Why not take some time to listen to a friend today?

Everyone should be quick to listen . . . slow to speak. — James 1:19


 

 

 

Contact: David Bentall's Office- Phone: 604.317.2624 -Toll Free: 1.866.594.4012 - Email: bentall@nxtstp.net - ©2008 - Next Step Advisors Inc.