by Tina VanSteenbergen
My mom has been telling me, my whole life, that I need to “listen better.” I’m a talker—always have been. My mother noticed early on what I didn’t really learn until a few weeks ago: there is real power in listening instead of talking.
Let me preface this story with a bit of vulnerability: I am not a socially-excellent traveler. Traveling in airports and on planes is a great opportunity to meet new people, shake more hands and develop relationships with strangers—that’s just not an opportunity I often take advantage of. I am a head-down, ear-bud-in, music-listening, non-talkative traveler. It’s my time to be by myself, to not talk, and to not listen. I’ll own that.
So I’m sitting in an airport alone. I am indicating to everyone around me that I am not going to engage in any sort of social behavior. My phone is playing music into my earbuds. My iPad is open on my lap connecting to the internet, and my laptop is charging next to me. I am plugged in to all forms of technology, and not at all to the world around me.
And then someone taps on my shoulder.
I assume it’s someone in need of the other half of the outlet I’m occupying, so I take my headphones out and turn around to help a fellow traveler plug themselves in. But that is not at all what that tap on my shoulder was about.
I turn to find a woman I’ve never seen or met before, dressed in comfy travel clothes with sunglasses on her face. As tears stream from underneath her shades, she asks, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
What do you say? What do you do? What I’d hoped someone would do for me, I suppose. I say, “Of course” as I frantically put down my phone, close my iPad case and shut my laptop. I turn to her with my undivided attention and my hands on my lap. I don’t have to say anything more before she begins to talk.
She told me about the truly difficult and traumatic emotional day she was having. Most of the details of her story aren’t important to share, with this one exception: She had broken her cell phone that morning. In the middle of one of the most emotionally stressful days of her life, she found herself alone in an airport, a place full of strangers, with no phone to connect her to her close friends and family. She felt completely disconnected from everyone she knew. She felt alone.
In the hour we talked, she told me about so many parts of her life—her boyfriend, her best friends, her dogs, her job, even about her father who had passed away just 6 months earlier. She talked, and she cried, and she talked some more. All I could do, all I needed to do, was listen.
We talked for over an hour before we had to board our planes. At the end, we hugged, and she thanked me for listening. We didn’t exchange phone numbers, business cards or honestly, even names. That tap on my shoulder wasn’t about her wanting to make a friend, build a connection or start a new relationship. She wasn’t looking to start a revolution or change the world. She just needed someone to talk to you, someone to listen to her.
Imagine how many people around us are feeling isolated or alone, people who are having terrible days and don’t have anyone to listen to them. Most of them won’t come tap you on the shoulder and ask you to listen—in fact, the woman I met in the airport that day was unbelievably brave to ask for help from a stranger. If she hadn’t asked me to, I never would have unplugged. I never would have listened to her.
Here’s the moral of the story: My mom is right. We all need to listen better. Sometimes, it’s the most generous thing you’ll be able to do for someone else.