Provision #327: Listening to Isabel

Laser Provision

Hurricane Isabel is gone but not forgotten, at least not in our part of the world. We just got our power turned on but will still be without phones, cable, or Internet for days or even weeks to come. This Provision offers a few more reflections on the situation, particularly as they apply to listening. If you want to become a better listener, this Provision will set you on the path.

LifeTrek Provision

To launch our series, “Ten Keys to Better Listening,” I want to share a few more reflections in the aftermath of hurricane Isabel. I have learned much about better listening in recent days, things we will visit again, in greater detail, as this series moves forward.

1. LISTENING TAKES WORK. From my vantage point, which includes direct contact with many readers and coaching clients around the globe, it seems that the world has moved quickly on to other stories. Never mind the fact that tens of thousands of people still have no electric power, telephone, cable, or Internet access. Nor that many are displaced and struggling with their losses. The storm is gone and with it has gone our attention to the problems it caused.

Isn’t that the way it goes? We live in a sound-bite society with 30-second attention spans. We enjoy sitcoms and soap operas precisely because things take place on cue. But in real life, things take time. And paying attention to things over time takes work.

During the Vietnam War, one outspoken critic was Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived in a hermitage in the hills of Kentucky. Merton was disparaged for being a social critic without being a social activist, and without even having access to the media for information. But Merton proved to be a clear and salient voice, based upon his connection to the world through letters and other personal forms of communication.

By reading the news firsthand, from people he cared about who were often making the news, Merton became a better listener to the situation than many who heard the nightly news on television or radio. Still it took work for Merton to pay attention and to respond from the confines of his hermitage. That’s how it is with listening. Listening takes work. And once we do the work, listening provokes a response that often entails even more work. It’s hard to listen without getting involved.

2. LISTENING WORKS. If there’s anything people need, they need to be heard. That’s especially true in the wake of loss. People need to tell their stories.

The common refrain here in Virginia, of course, is to tell the stories of what happened to you, your neighbors, and your neighborhood. It has a therapeutic effect. Was your house damaged? Do you have power? Do you have phone? Was anyone hurt? And, just as important as the war stories, how did you make it through? Who helped? What miracles did you see? What about the near misses? Were you insured? What’s your plan for the future?

There’s no right or wrong answers to these questions. There’s only your answers and your stories. Having the opportunity to speak that word in the presence of a listening ear is not only succor for the spirit but crucial for the reconstruction. People either move on together or they may not move on well at all.

As one of the homes spared from major damage, I was feeling guilty about going out to mow and clean up my lawn when others had to deal with debris weighing tens of thousands of pounds. Then two neighbors, in the same morning, stopped by to say how much the sound of a lawn mower meant to them after the continual drone of generators, chain saws, and bobcats.

“Your home is an oasis,” remarked one neighbor, “in the midst of devastation and chaos. It gives us all hope to see the sights and to hear the sounds of normalcy.” In that moment, I realized new ways that listening to my story was working for others.

3. LISTENING TAKES MORE THAN EARS. Body language is just as important, and often more important, than the actual words being spoken. People can tell by our body language whether we are listening to them or not. Paying attention to body language provides clues as to the deeper meaning of what’s being said. Without my even realizing it, people were listening to my story. The sound of the lawn mower and the appearance of the house and yard were speaking a thousand words.

Body language includes eye contact and gestures. It’s hard not to feel appreciative and grateful for all the companies and workers, many of whom have come from out of state, to assist with the repair and cleanup of the area. It may be impossible to speak with someone at the top of an electric pole or in the cab of heavy machinery, but it is possible to communicate with a wave and a thumbs-up. Knowing that we listen with more than our ears means that we can communicate with more than our mouths.

4. LISTENING WELL SAVES LIVES. A story in the local newspaper reported that the day before the hurricane, on what appeared to be a calm and beautiful sunny day, many stray animals suddenly just showed up and were taken in at area animal shelters. The caretakers speculated that the animals somehow knew that a terrible storm was coming. It was as though they were listening to the groans of the planet. If so, that listening may well have saved their lives.

Isn’t it interesting that animals can listen on such deep levels while we require the extended reach of Doppler Radar! Left to my own devices, I would have taken no precautions the day before the storm. Deck furniture and bird feeders would have been outside when the storm struck, ending up damaged or, even worse, doing damage as they flew through the air. Listening well, whether with our intuition (like the animals) or with our eyes and ears to the world around us, can make us take cover.

These and other insights into listening are captured by the anonymous poem entitled Listen that is included in Steve Powers’ 1997 book, Listen to Your Neighbors Heart. Think about this poem as you consider your own listening, in both your personal and professional relationships.


When I ask you to listen to me
and you start giving advice,
you have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me
and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem,
you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen! All I ask, is that you listen.
Not talk or do•just hear me.
Advice is cheap:
50 cents will get you both Dear Abby and Billy Graham
in the same newspaper.

And I can do for myself; I’m not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do
for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness.

But when you accept as a simple fact
that I do feel what I feel,
no matter how irrational,
then I can quit trying to convince you
and get about the business of understanding what’s behind
this irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious,
and I don’t need advice.

Perhaps that’s why prayer works,
sometimes, for some people because God is mute,
and God doesn’t give advice or try to fix things.
God just listens and lets you work it out yourself.

So please listen and just hear me.
And, if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn;
And I’ll listen to you•

That is my goal for this series on the Ten Keys to Better to Listening. I want all of us, myself included, to become better listeners. I want us to discover what Steve Powers’ calls “the awesome power of listening.” I want to move us from halfhearted, half-baked listening or listening with an agenda to wholehearted, full-bore listening that has no agenda other than to listen well.

Oh, that a few of our world leaders might tune in to this series and turn on to the power of better listening! As nations and peoples, we are intent on securing our place and advancing our interests in the world. But that does not bode well for the future in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. If the future has any hope, it lies with leaders who understand, appreciate, and put into practice the principles of better listening. If you know the email addresses of any world leaders, please forward this series weekly!

“You can hear a whole lot,” a country sage once observed, “just by listening.” Unfortunately, whether it’s on the world stage or in the comfort of our own homes, most of us are all too quick to get our point across. Conversation becomes a competition for airtime. As one person is talking, we are thinking about what we want to say next rather than about the drivers and dynamics of the person to whom we are listening.

Small wonder there’s such a dearth of community and compassion in the world. We claim to be interested but we’re actually invested in making sure things go our way. Don’t do that! Learn to listen well. God is not actually mute, as one of our readers observed the last time this poem was shared, but God listens so well as to be taken for mute until, at least on occasion, we feel our hearts strangely warmed.

There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Listening is at least twice as important as talking. This goes for listening to others as well as for listening to the Other. If we spend all our time talking to others and to God, even if it’s heartfelt, we will miss the voice within and contribute to the noise of the world. If we take the time to listen • patiently, mindfully, and understandingly • we will become artists painting a new world order.

This is my hope for us all and for this series of LifeTrek Provisions: that becoming more aware of the power of listening will change our way of being in our personal, professional, and political lives.

Coaching Inquires: What signals do you put out in the world? What signals do you pick up on? Would you like to become better at both? What specific things could you pay attention to that might assist you to move forward?

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

Here in Canada, British Columbia, we were hit by a firestorm. Now you’ve been hit by a hurricane. I can relate to all you’re writing here. Crisis and natural disasters are such a force to contend with. I’m sure your readers will be happy to hear from you and know you’re all right, as was I. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Thank you so much for your insightful account of life during and after Isabel’s wrath. Your Provision Points were helpful, not only during a time of disaster, but also during much of our daily life. I am grateful that you and yours were spared any harm.

Great piece on Lessons from Isabel. Glad you made it through. We were also very lucky with no damage to our home.

I am going to send your last Provision to several friends who also are recovering from hurricane Isabel. I just talked to my friend in Richmond, Virginia. They have been without power for many days. I told her about your Provision and that you had some thoughts that she’d appreciate. My other friends live in Williamsburg. I have been unable to reach them by email or telephone. I know that they, also, will appreciate your thoughts when they are able to retrieve messages.

All the way from Guam, in the South Pacific, I would like to wish the folks in your area of Virginia the best. I attended school in the Shenandoah Valley many years ago, and am familiar with the area. I am also keenly familiar with Hurricanes, typhoons in our area, as we are in what is affectionately called “Typhoon Alley.” We were just hit by one in December of 2002, and are still recuperating and rebuilding from it. I am very familiar with the damage that arises from a storm of this nature, and, as I understand the news, it was fortunate that winds had dropped to below 100 mph. Out here, we usually get anywhere between 80-110 mph winds for most storms, and have had quite a few “Super” Typhoons, with winds gusting in excess of 200 mph. Our thoughts are with you all there in Virginia, and best of luck on the recovery efforts. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran
LifeTrek Coaching International
121 Will Scarlet Lane
Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043

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