First Listen and Understand

Mr. C’s Enlightening Train Ride

Mr C was sitting quietly in his seat as the subway car came to a slow stop at the next station. Among the 10 or 15 people that made their way into the already crowded car, Mr C noticed a slightly disheveled woman followed closely by two very active boys. The mom looked to be in her mid forties; both boys were under the age of 10.

The woman graciously took the seat offered her by a younger male passenger. At first the children’s rather loud voices and playful scuffling brought a more cheerful mood to the previously quiet, gray atmosphere of the subway car. But soon, the children’s antics became annoying to the other passengers and the fact that the mother seemed oblivious to their increasingly raucous behavior only made things worse. Passengers began to direct cold, hard stares at the mother hoping to shake her out of her indifference to the unruly conduct of her children. The stares were not effective.

Mr. C prided himself on patience and he was doing his best to politely ignore the energetic kids. But as hard as he tried, he still found himself irritated – not so much at the boys, but at the lack of concern displayed by the mother. Several exasperated passengers had moved to the opposite end of the car in an attempt to extricate themselves from the  annoying situation. When a passenger seated next to the mother exited the train, Mr C  folded up his newspaper and quietly shifted into the now empty seat. He had decided to politely confront the mother.

“Excuse me, ma’am” started Mr. C respectfully. “Are aware that your boys are causing quite a disturbance on the train?”

Almost before the words were out of Mr. C’s mouth, appearing startled, the mother looked up at Mr. C and then quickly turned her attention to her boys. She offered no verbal reply; instead, she sprang from her seat, quickly gathered up and quietened the two boys, and settled them in seats directly across from her. During this process, she had quietly apologized to several of the nearby passengers. As she returned to her seat, for the first time Mr. C noticed that she looked exhausted. Heavy eyes encircled by dark, puffy rings provided evidence that she desperately needed sleep. You could see the strain and stress in her body as she settled back down into her seat.

“Sir, I am so sorry for the boys’ behavior and even more sorry that I seemed unconcerned. Its been a difficult morning for us all and I guess that the boys just don’t know how to process it all. And to be honest, neither do I.”

His heart softened by the genuineness of the woman’s apology, with empathy, Mr. C inquired, “What has happened? If its not to personal to ask.”

Her voice trembling, she answered, “My husband has been fighting cancer for nearly two years now. He passed away early this morning and the boys and I have just now left the hospital and are heading home. I’m just not sure how we are going to get through the next few days.”

Now embarrassed by his earlier assumption that the mom was simply an irresponsible parent, Mr. C offered his condolences and listened to more of the sad story of her husband’s illness and death. Soon, the boys and mom arrived at their stop and exited the train. As he watched them depart, Mr. C vowed to himself that in the future he would be more cautious about jumping to conclusions about people without first fully understanding their circumstances.

Image by Charles Deluvio (see attribution below)

Taking Time to Understand

Some of you may recognize this powerful story. It is my recollection of a true personal story that Stephen Covey includes in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Its been years since I first read this story and I may have not gotten every detail correct. Furthermore, my wife tells me that I often take the liberty of embellishing stories. So a small embellishment may have unwittingly found its way in to my version. But rest assured: the basic elements are true.

I have recounted Stephen Covey’s train story on many, many occasions in the years since I first read it. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of Covey’s Habit #5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In many ways Habit 5 is another way of stating instructions provided in the New Testament book of James: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

So often, we make considerable assumptions when sizing up people or their behavior. Like Covey on the train, without the full story, we completely misjudge people and become unnecessarily critical in the process. Based on our hasty and uniformed conclusions, we disregard or ignore certain individuals and thereby miss out on opportunities to extend to them the encouragement and compassion they may need.

Most of us can personally describe vivid experiences from our childhood that dramatically affected who we ultimately became. Some of those experiences were positive; some were not. Understanding such pivotal, life-changing experiences in others can dramatically change our perspective on their behavior. I’ll wrap this blog post up by sharing briefly about one of my homeless friends whose personal story completely transformed my perception of him. I’ve changed his name and some details to preserve his anonymity.

prison cells
Image by Thomas Hawk (see attribution below)

Steve’s Story

Steve’s father was the second of five husbands his mother would ultimately marry and divorce. Of course, Steve never knew his biological father and never really got to know any of the four other men who resided temporarily in their home. At the age of 14, Steve’s mother kicked Steve out of the house. That meant Steve fending for himself on the unforgiving streets of Chicago. Steve’s mom had discovered that Steve was smoking marijuana and had summarily informed him that druggies were not welcome in her home.

It is now some forty years later and Steve remains homeless. Addiction continues to be the defining struggle in his life. If his mother’s actions were intended to discourage drug use, they were thoroughly misguided. Once on the streets of Chicago, not only did Steve’s drug use increase, Steve also fell under the unwholesome influence of older boys living on the streets. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very long before Steve found himself incarcerated. During early adulthood, when many men of his age attended college, married and started careers, Steve found himself in federal prison. Ten years of prison life did nothing to positively affect the way he saw the world.

From a very young age, Steve had always felt that he would end up in prison. Later on, he came to believe that he would die in prison. He had watched several of his street friends go to prison; some of them had met violent deaths inside. But more significantly,  one of Steve’s half-brothers was already imprisoned. He had committed  a gruesome murder that drew intense attention in the media. A judge and jury had sent  him to death row to await execution. This brother would go on to murder a second man in prison and ultimately die in the electric chair. Steve felt it was only a matter of time before he met a similar fate.

A Changed Perspective

I met Steve some 10 years ago through another homeless friend. To be frank, I was afraid of him. Early on I spent some time with Steve and found him to have a quick temper that could boil suddenly into a rage. There were rumors that he had a violent past and was a convicted felon. Over the next few years, Steve was incarcerated several times. Episodically I would hear from him and he participated in a few of our in-home gatherings and downtown Bible studies. But I kept my distance.

Image by Ravi Roshan (see attribution below)

One morning about 18 months ago, I was praying in our living room. A homeless friend, Jim, had been doing well. I was thanking God for Jim’s progress and praying that it would continue. Suddenly, out of nowhere, into my mind came an unexpected message: “If you think Jim is doing fine, just wait until you see what I’m going to do with Steve.” In an instant, my attitude toward Steve was forever changed. Immediately I wanted to locate Steve and tell him about my experience. The fear that I had of Steve was replaced with hope and an excited anticipation of what God would do in his life.

Since that morning in my living room, I have intentionally sought out opportunities to spend time with Steve. As a result, I have learned a great deal about his life and his experiences. It has been during the last few weeks that I have learned many of the details from Steve’s past I have shared in this blog. I’ve also learned about Steve’s faith. And knowing about Steve’s past has made me much more empathetic toward him – and much more willing to come alongside him to assist and encourage.

Now understand that I am not attempting to excuse any of Steve’s behavior based on his early life experiences or genetic tendencies. However, I do think that we can learn a lot about a person and perhaps develop a deeper degree of empathy for them if we consider where they have come from. Adhering to Stephen Covey’s admonition to “Seek first to understand then to be understood” can turn our initial judgments about a person upside down.

And by the way, I did share my living room prayer experience with Steve. He broke down and wept. God not only gave me hope for Steve, he gave Steve hope for Steve. As of this writing, Steve has been sober for three months, is housed and is working full time. He’s also keeping a personal journal, participating in Bible study and attending church regularly. This past week he established care for the first time with a physician and will have his first session with a counselor in two weeks. I invite you to join me in praying for Steve as well as praising God for what He is doing in Steve’s life. And I encourage you to follow the advice of Steven Covey and the instruction in scripture to listen and understand before making hurried judgments about others.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Featured Crowded Train image by diGital Sennin on Unsplash; Conversation image by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash ; Prison Bound image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0; Hand image by Ravi Roshan via Unsplash

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One thought on “First Listen and Understand

  1. Praise God for what He is doing in Steve’s life and can do in others if they will seek Him with all their heart.

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