On a recent flight from Dallas, I met a woman I’ll call Susie. She took the window seat next to me and warmly asked “How are y’all doing tonight?” So began the discussion which lasted the better part of the flight home to St. Louis.
Susie’s nerves were apparent from the start; I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out the cause. She had enlisted in the Army and was headed to Fort Leonard Wood to begin basic training. “I was stuck,” the 19-year old declared before we’d even left the gate. She hadn’t been able to graduate from high school because she didn’t have a car and couldn’t get there. Without a high school degree, the only work Susie was able to get was at the local fast food joint.
All before takeoff, I knew about Susie’s “ego problem,” her need to be the best, her rebellious nature, the friends who weren’t talking to her because she’d joined the Army, her family, and more. She didn’t stop talking or figeting, all while proclaiming her excitement about the aircraft, the flight, and boot camp.
She shared so much so quickly; what did she want me to do with this information?
You might imagine that my coach training was kicking in from the start. As a woman 30 years her senior, part of me–perhaps a maternal part–was eager to share some life experiences with this strong, yet vulnerable nineteen year old. But as I leaned into the moment, it was apparent that Susie was not in a frame of mind to hear anything. I realized that Susie needed something else from me. What was it?
As I listened to the totality of Susie’s communication–the content and tone of her speech, her body language, her energy–it all expressed one need. As she flew away from the only home she’d ever known and on to the next chapter in her life, Susie needed me to listen to her.
Susie was starting a new chapter in her life, one that both excited her and frightened her and she needed to talk about it and be heard. It was my role during that flight to listen deeply to what she was saying and to communicate to her that she was being heard. It was my pleasure to do so.
Rebecca Shafir, author of The Zen of Listening, defines listening as “the willingness to see a situation through the eyes of the speaker.” During that flight, I attempted to appreciate how it might feel to have the courage to sign a 4 year contract for service–to anyone, for anything. I tried to appreciate how it might feel leaving everything and everyone you know in one state and travel to another state to start a new life–and to do that all by yourself at nineteen years of age. I attempted to appreciate how it might feel to be entering the Army at a time of war.
More often than we realize, what a loved one, co-worker, or stranger needs most is for us to listen deeply to them. When deep listening takes place, both speaker and listener are often transformed. As Sue Patton Thoele says, “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.” Susie: I thank you for expanding my spirit and salute you for serving our country.
January 8, 2010