You’re Not Listening — A Lesson in Listening

A Lesson in Listening

As a 21-year-old front of house (FOH) supervisor at an unconventional seafood restaurant, I learned a lot of powerful lessons. We could talk about those lessons for a loooonnnggg time. However, there is one main story that sticks out the most. Or, at least this one pertains to what we are talking about today. A lesson in listening.

The restaurant had just opened three months before this day. Due to the entirely new staff, we had a lot of learning curves to work through. One in particular involving the kitchen and timeliness of the meals being delivered.

Making rounds in the restaurant was my job as the FOH supervisor. The boss called it “table touches.” I would go from table to table making sure guests were enjoying their meals.

“You’re Not Listening.”

During this particular shift I came across an older couple sitting at the bar. I engaged the couple in a conversation to ensure the food and experience met their standards. Unfortunately, they were upset. As the husband spoke, I listened to what was wrong. The man paused and I launched into a (memorized) response my boss had taught me when someone wasn’t enjoying their meal or had other issues.

Before I could finish the monologue, the man cut me off. This was the first, and only, time this happened. He was upset about the overall experience, but he was even more frustrated with my response to his concerns. I could see his frustration grow as he cut me off and said, “You’re not listening.”

In the moment, my age and limited experience was working against me. To be more clear, it wasn’t just my inexperience as a supervisor, it was also my lack of experience in life and interpersonal relationships. Therefore, when this gentleman told me I wasn’t listening, I was completely and utterly confused. I had listened to what he said. Why did he think I did not listen? 

Truly Listen — Listen to Understand

What he meant, however, was that I did not listen to understand what he was saying. Instead, I was listening to respond to what he was saying. There is a big difference between the two. My inexperience immaturely made it difficult for me to fully understand what was happening. It’s been over 15 years since that day. While I’ve grow in many ways over the years, learning to truly listen is something I have worked hard to improve (eh, hem, sometimes easier said than done. #workinprogress).

Despite my personal growth and desire to learn how to be a better listener, I still I didn’t fully understand what that man was saying. Recently, however, I learned this lesson on a deeper level.

The reason why this lesson finally hit home to me — the tables were turned and I was saying, “You’re not listening.” (Though in my situtation, I didn’t exactly get to say those words).

Mental Health Struggles

As a parent, we do what ever we can to help our children feel secure, appreciated, and loved. COVID hasn’t exactly made this the easiest of tasks — it has resulted in navigating a lot of uncharted territory (As I am sure you know!). 

Over the past weekend, there was a moment where this mamma bear nearly came unleashed (Truthfully, it wasn’t my greatest moment). All I wanted to do was to help my daughter feel valued as a member of her sports team. We were at a multi-day sporting event and she had spent the night before crying because she didn’t feel as though she was contributing any value to her team. Even though she was on the roster, she felt as though she was there ‘just in case’ someone got hurt.

Without disclosing too many more details, out of respect to my daughter, I felt as though I failed to help her see her value. At the same time, there wasn’t much I could say in that moment to help her feel better. It really seemed like a job for the coach to help her shift perspectives and hear the value she did bring to the team.

Full disclosure, while I’d like to think I have the tools to help my daughter, this situation has been extraordinarily hard. The topic of mental health has been a frequent conversation over the past 16 months – especially in our home. We are not only navigating uncharted territory of  living in a COVID world (unpredictability to the core), we are trying to learn a helpful approach how to mental health.

A Moment of Desperation — Listening Needed

Back to that mamma bear unleashed moment. As I sat watching my daughter’s game, my heart was broken. While she was trying her hardest to stay positive and cheer her teammates on from the sidelines, I could see her demeanor changing from the day before. She looked like her soul was slowly being crushed. All her hard work to get to this point seemed like it was not enough. She was questioning if the time, effort, and dedication she has committed to the sport would ever be enough.

Eh, hem, struggling with not feeling good enough is a feeling all too real for my past-self. So, it makes my heart break even more watching her feel so defeated.

As the game went on, I choked back my tears and tried to avoid looking at her as she stood there. Unfortunately, it was hard to do since she was basically standing directly across from where I sat.

Once the game ended, I stood up and gathered my things as usual. The coach took my daughter to the side and started to talk with her. Not knowing what to do to help, the only thing I knew to do was hide.

Flight Response Kicking In…

Without saying anything, I went to the nearest bathroom. Once I knew there was no one else around, tears started streaming down my face. As I got to the bathroom stall, it became harder and harder to keep myself from sobbing. Even though I locked behind me, I didn’t want anyone to hear me.

After I spent a solid 15-minutes crying in the bathroom stall, I knew it was time to leave the facility. The trick would be doing in a way that would prevent my daughter from seeing my puffy red eyes (a different kind of “walk of shame”). I washed my face in the bathroom sink, wiped it with the rough paper towel, and fought back the urge to let more tears roll down my checks. As I walked toward the door, I recited positive affirmations and focused on my breathing.

How was I supposed to help my daughter when I was broken myself? If I can’t keep myself together, how can I guide her to stay strong?

I walked past my daughter’s court as fast as I could, it reminded me of the day she started preschool. It was a drop and run situation to make sure I didn’t see her cry. This time though, I was trying to protect her from seeing me cry. After almost intersecting paths, I exited the building. Once outside, I could finally hide the visible pain in my eyes with my sunglasses. I was now heading back to the hotel room to conceal my emotions from others until I could pull myself together.

I’m Frustrated. Please Listen.

Upon returning to the hotel room, I continued to force positive talk on myself and fight the urge to cry. Once the tears stopped for more than a few minutes, it was time to touch up my mascara and get my shit together. My daughter had another game starting soon, so I had to get back to the courts at the convention center across the street.

As I left the hotel to return, my thoughts were all over the place. What was I going to do? I had no idea. The only thing I knew was: 1) I needed to support my daughter, but didn’t know what it looked like other than being there for the next game, and 2) I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

While I started to think through different scenarios, such as leaving the sport behind, the Universe put the club director directly in my path. We came upon one another in the middle of an intersection. After a quick internal-debate with the angel sitting on one shoulder and the devil on the other, I decided now was the time to speak up. (hienz sight, it was a terrible idea).

As he walked toward me, I stopped. The first words that came from my mouth were “I’m frustrated….” before I could finish my thoughts, he interjected. My words were falling on deaf ears. Instead of seeking to understand what was happening and why I felt frustrated, he immediately cut me off and started his monologue.

Yes, it was much like the monologue I had rehearsed at the seafood restaurant nearly 15 years earlier.

Despite the need to be heard, he took the opportunity to lecture me. The most difficult part, he was talking about something I didn’t even want to talk about. My only objective was to help my daughter to feel good about what was happening. I wanted nothing more than the support her mental health and well-being.

If my words had been heard, he would have heard my desire desperation to help my daughter feel like a valued member of her team. All I wanted to do was figure out how we could come together to help lift her confidence and self-worth.

“Listening is often the only thing needed to help someone.”


Had he listened to my words, he would have realized all I needed was to be heard and supported. If that would have happened, my frustrations would have dissolved. But, considering the topic we are discussing here, I’m sure you know that didn’t happen.

My words were lost in translation.

Reflecting on Listening and Our Innate Desire to be Heard

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure that you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Robert McCloskey, US State Department 

This quote mostly likely reflects what happened on my way back to the convention center for the next game. While the club director thinks he understands what was happening, he didn’t actually get it.

That is because he did not realize what he heard is not what I meant. His lecture was on a topic completely unrelated to what I needed to discuss. His reponse was the memorized monologue, just like the one I had used when speaking to the older couple at the bar of the unconvetional seafood restaurant.

In other words, that memorized monologue is much like giving an answer when we listen only to respond. And, we forget to listen to understand. Unfortunately, our society isn’t really taught to do this.

How Do We Make Sure Someone Feels Heard?

“The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT.”

Alfred Brendel

What happens when we don’t truly listen to someone who needs to be heard?

  • Their feelings go invalidated.
  • The situation is not resolved.
    • If anything, this can stoke the fire within them and make the person more upset.
  • You close the door on what could have been a productive conversation.
  • The problem persists.

How do we listen to so someone feels heard?

  • Be silent. No words need to come from your mouth while listening.
  • Keep an open mind. You may be surprised by what you hear.
  • Wait. Allow the person speaking to pause. Allow the silence to persist as long as needed.
    • Sometimes a pause is neccessary for the person speaking to collect their thoughts. Just because words stopped coming out of their mouth, it does not mean they are done speaking.
  • Ask the person what they need from you.
    • Often times, the person knows exactly what they neeed. It can be words of encouragement, a hug, or someone to validate their feelings. Don’t offer any of these things unless you ask the person what they need first.

TL;DR: Listen.

When someone is struggling, frustrated, or having a hard time, they just need someone to listen. If you are in a position of authority on the matter, please make an extra effort to listen. This means be silent until they have finished expressing themselves. Do not simply wait for your opportunity to reply. You need to listen to understand — not to respond.

Moral of the story, this quote sums it up better than I could have said myself…

“Listening is an art of love. When you listen to people, you are communicating non-verbally that they are important to you.”

Jim George

A Few More Quotes about Listening

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” – Bryant H. McGill

“Communication is not saying something; communication is being heard.” – Frances Hesselbein

“The hardest times for me were not when people challenged what I said, but when I felt my voice was not heard.” – Carol Gilligan

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