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Are We Listening?

Issue 30

Listening Deeply: A Journey of Empathy

I’m truly irate right now,” he said.

These words came in response to a recent article, “Are You Willing to Go to Any Lengths?” which describes an interaction between a woman who desperately wanted to stop smoking, and a correctional officer who became her unwitting accomplice on that path when she slapped him as he left work in uniform, to get jail time and freedom from smoking.

I was sitting in the waiting area of a local service center, talking about the article with the business owner. We were both having a laugh about the story in the article when another customer spoke these words, “I’m truly irate right now.” The tone of his voice let us know he truly was irate. He made no eye contact as he spoke, staring down at the phone in his hands.

In the presence of anger, my early training was to go on the defensive or simply to go altogether. Fight or flight. That’s how I survived long enough to eventually get a different kind of training. Training that says, Don’t push back, and don’t run away. Lean in, as much as you dare, and stay curious.

“Tell me more,” I said. I leaned toward him, where his young son sat between us, playing a video game and quietly listening.

In the next few minutes he reminded me that the officer in the story was leaving his shift, and the woman who struck him had no idea what had transpired on his shift, what he’d been exposed to on that shift. “He could have been holding someone who died in his arms,” he said. And she took a great risk in hitting this officer who is tasked daily with suiting up, showing up and working many hours.

Correctional officers in many places work mandatory overtime. They are locked within a facility for the duration of each long shift where they are responsible for ensuring the safety of those who have little to no concern for their safety.

The more I invited, the more he spoke, and the more I listened and empathized, the warmer his voice became. Even the lighting in the room seemed to change to become gentler, and golden.

At one point in what had become a conversation between us, I realized—although I’d worked in corrections for several years as a counselor, and worked alongside officers who also worked mandatory overtime, as he and his fellow officers do now—until he spoke, I had not considered for one moment how they might have felt when they read the same story I did about this woman and this officer in Sacramento, California. I told him this, and I thanked him for speaking up, for staying connected, for talking it through, and for not making me The Enemy because I expressed a different point of view. “There’s too much of that in the world already,” he said. The conversation became calm and inviting, and in the end, his son and the business owner joined in. We shook hands and made eye contact as we parted, introducing ourselves by name.

This man’s openness and willingness to keep talking about something thorny took us both to a place of deeper understanding.

While we’re on this topic of listening, here’s another we can explore more next time: tuning in to the voice within. Whenever someone refers to their inner critic, or to their addiction, or even to their aching knee as bad, my sense is they’ve missed out on another golden opportunity to lean in, to be curious, to ask, “What are you here to teach me, to have me know? Can we listen and respond in a different way than we have in the past?”

While I’ve agreed not to mention this man by name, I want to express my gratitude once more for the reminder to stay curious and present, to resist the urge to run away. There’s gold in these moments—when we speak up and when we listen.

Joanna Free
Joanna Free
Joanna Free is the (grateful) author of BUTTKICKERS: Twenty Ways to Leave Tobacco and a (proud) writer for Journey Magazine.

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