Listening – Uncovering the Forgotten Communication Tool – Part II: Handling the “What Ifs” (Emotion)

The subject of communication is as vast as an ocean. I’ll try to teach the tools I’ve learned one drink at a time, so we can swallow and enjoy each one.  Let’s begin exploring the “what ifs” that inevitably come up in conversation. As we learn together the tools used to become a better listener, one of the most fearful situations that people are forced to handle is emotion.

“What if they start crying?” “What if I start to cry?” “What do I do?” In the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I have, as you can imagine, encountered tears in many forms and for many reasons. Here are some rules of thumb that I use when emotion comes up. Please realize that my comments are taken with my role at LifeStories Alive in mind, as an interviewer there to record their LifeStories…not as a parent, loving spouse, or best friend.

What if they start to cry?


  1. Don’t interrupt the emotion or say anything! This one is tough for me to do. My childhood upbringing taught me that it is proper to comfort a person who gets emotional. What I have found, however, in the setting of a conversation, is that if I let them get the emotion out…completely out…they will feel better when they are finished. Another benefit is that some of the most valuable pearls of wisdom and heart-felt comments have come at the end of uninterrupted emotion. Here’s an example: What would I have missed if I interrupted that emotion?
  2. Be compassionate with your body language but never say, “I understand” (because you don’t) or “It’s okay” (because it might not be). It’s better to acknowledge the emotion, but don’t try to make it go away.
  3. Don’t invade their personal space. I’m a hugger. I want to gently touch them when the emotion happens. I have learned that invading their personal space will interrupt the emotion, and that’s the last thing I want to happen.
  4. How will I know when they are finished with the emotion? They will always let you know by making eye contact with you. Even after they make that eye contact, take a good, long pause to be sure that they are finished.

What if I start to cry?

With the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I get emotional during an interview. Here are some helpful tools I keep in mind:

  1. Take a deep breath. I try to do this as quietly as possible. I don’t want the audio of a deep breath on my part to be heard (although my editor can remove it in post-production editing).
  2. Keep a tissue or handkerchief near. The audible sound of sniffles is distracting to the speaker/interviewee.
  3. After their emotion is finished, it might be appropriate to explain why what they said touched you…but do this only after you are sure they are finished.

Emotion is a natural part of life. Handling emotion in a respectful way will help make you better listener and, thus, a better communicator.

Elie Wiesel – a Conversation I Overheard

It has been said that there have been certain people through history whose presence and energy could be felt when they walked into a room. I felt such an energy from Elie Wiesel when he walked into the studio yesterday morning at our local PBS station, KLRU , for a taping of Overheard with Evan Smith.  This taping was part of the incredible Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project  (more on this project in a future blog post). Being a partner in the Light Project, I was invited to be in the audience for the taping.

Evan Smith did an excellent job facilitating this conversation with Professor Wiesel. There were many things he said that were noteworthy. Here are a few that meant a lot to me:

I was able to ask him a direct question at the end of the interview. I mentioned Edmund Burke’s quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” My question was, “I am at times frustrated by friends and colleagues who choose to do nothing when they know injustice is present. What advice would you give to encourage them to do something?” His answer was for me to speak up against the injustice first. He said, “If there is an injustice and I am silent, I am guilty.” Those around me will only speak up if they witness my example of speaking up and doing something against the injustice. Brilliant!

Other questions were asked that had to do with humanity and injustice in the world. One of his closing quotes was, “I am not defined by my humanity unless it is linked to yours.” This man of peace (1986 Nobel Peace Prize awardee) realizes and teaches that it is our link to one another that will cause peace (or harm). It is up to each one of us to accept that responsibility, the responsibility to link to one another, and act upon it, in order to achieve peace.

I encourage all of you to learn from, or be in the room with Elie Wiesel, if given the chance. If you cannot be in the same room with him, pick up and read one of the many books he wrote. You will feel his amazing energy through his words.

Listening – Uncovering the Forgotten Communication Tool – Part I: The Basics

Most of us have heard the importance of communication in school, business and life, in general. Some of us have been taught some skills and tools to use in order to improve our use of communication. But very few, if any, have been taught the most important of all the communication skills: listening.

I have been fortunate to be trained in listening skills and, thankfully, am able to apply those skills in the work I do at LifeStories Alive. It is my pleasure to share some of the skills I have been taught and the lessons I have learned through practical application of those skills. Whether you are a businessperson, classroom teacher, or a parent working at improving communication with your loved ones, I hope you enjoy and put to use these valuable tools I share with you.

Let’s start with the basics. While these points may seem obvious, most of us need to be reminded of them so we can practice them more often.

Stop talking

That’s right. I believe it is impossible to intently listen if you are bumping your gums (a slang for talking). While some people argue that they can listen and talk at the same time, I have seen the disastrous consequences of messing this one up. You will see soon that in order to apply some of the skills of a good listener listed below, you must first shut up!

Listen with your whole body

When I first heard this concept, I thought I knew what it meant. With further study, and listening to this TED Talk by Evelyn Glennie, I have a much better idea. This concept includes important practices like maintaining eye contact, leaning forward, intently watching their body language, and listening without judging. To better imagine what this basic tool is all about, in the next conversation you have today, imagine you are severely hearing impaired. Then realize during that conversation how important it is to “listen” to everything that is happening, not just what is being said.

Don’t interrupt!

This is the hardest thing for many people to learn. I know how hard it was, and still is for me. Here are a couple of tools I have learned that help with this subject:

  1. The next sentence you say has to include at least one word from the last sentence they say. This will force you to not only listen, but to pause after they’re finished talking…because you don’t know if they are really finished talking.
  2. The next sentence you say has to include at least one word from the last sentence they say. This will force you to not only listen, but to pause after they’re finished talking…because you don’t know if they are really finished talking.
  3. Practice using pauses of different lengths after they are finished. This is especially important when dealing with different emotions. When sadness and tears are involved, people tend to pause longer between thoughts expressed. Let those long pauses happen before you say anything!

I hope these basics help you to become a better listener. Remember, it takes practice to improve, but improving your listening skills can make a huge difference in your life.

The Love a Father has for His Daughter

Before my daughter, Alyssa, was born (more than 25 years ago), I dreamed about what it would be like to have a daughter. My dreams came true in October, 1986 and my life has not been the same since. I can now verify what I heard all those years before she came into my life…about what the love a father has for his daughter is all about.

As I write this, I am sitting at a table across from Alyssa, in one of my favorite coffee shops in Austin, Monkey Nest Organic Coffee & Bakery . She is half-way through her program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (Doctor of Physical Therapy) and is in town for her spring break. Here’s a pic I snapped with my iPhone: 

As we talked, I found my mind flashing back through many memorable times in our lives together. Many stories over these 25 years make me smile. Here’s one that I love: One of our first “dates” (just the two of us) was when I took her to see Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the movie theater. She was about three or four years old. She had her own seat next to me, eating popcorn that we shared and enjoying her very own drink. Soon after the movie began, she asked to sit on my lap. I glady obliged and we enjoyed the rest of the movie together this way. Shortly after she sat on my lap, the scene with Ursula, the evil sea witch with a body of an octopus, came on screen:

Alyssa immediately and completely turned around, faced the back of the theater, hugged my neck ever-so-tightly, and whispered in my ear, “Dally, I think I want to go home now!” She couldn’t see the tear and smile on my face as I hugged her said, “The witch will be gone soon, Pumpkin. I’ll let you know when it’s okay to turn around.” She survived the rest of the movie and to this day, the two of us look back on that date as a favorite memory.

So today, as I sit across from this young woman who is studying to be “Dr. O’Krent”, I smile that same smile and have a similar tear in my eye as I know, deep in my heart, how much I love my daughter.