Conversations…do you hear what I hear?

Conversations and controversy

A guide to better holiday conversations

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand;

they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen R. Covey

“Bergeron Funeral Services, this is Cathy. How may I help you?”

This was – and still is – my standard telephone greeting at the funeral home where I work. Phone etiquette is very important at a funeral home. You never know who may be calling or why. We never say ‘good morning’ when we answer the phone and we don’t end calls with ‘have a nice day’.

We try to be very clear in our communication because people who call are often in shock and we want to avoid misunderstandings. We learn quickly to listen with the intent to understand so we can give appropriate and accurate responses.

Sometimes even the most skilled listener is still at the mercy of the person on the other end of the phone, which is what happened one day when a man called the funeral home by mistake.

“Bergeron Funeral Services, this is Cathy. How may I help you?”

Even before I answered the phone I checked the caller ID which said Texas. A call from this location was unusual, but not unheard of at our business. We occasionally deal with an insurance company whose head office is in Texas.

A man’s heavily accented southern voice said, “Yeah, I need to change the shipping address on the parcel y’all are delivering.”

“I’m sorry, what is it that we’re shipping to you?”

“Sweetie, you need to listen. It’s being shipped to my house, but I need to change the address.”

And that was enough information to know that the man on the other end of the line had called the wrong number. Our funeral home was definitely not shipping something to a home address in Texas.

“I’m sorry sir; I think you may have the wrong number.”

Normally this is where the caller would confirm the number he was trying to call, but not this time.

“Sweetie, if you would just listen I could explain this to you. I need you to change the shipping address.”

“Sir, I really do think you have the wrong number.”

“Sweetie I just need you to listen to me. I’ve tried to do this online, but it won’t let me. So if you could just change it for me I’d appreciate it.”

Only two people in the world call me Sweetie, one is my mother and the other is my husband. This man was neither and he just wasn’t listening.

“Sir, this is Bergeron Funeral Services so unless you need to arrange a burial or cremation in British Columbia, Canada, you really do have the wrong number.”


Finally, I heard “This isn’t UPS Tech Support?”

“No sir, you have called the toll-free number for a funeral home in Canada.”

More silence…then deep, throaty chuckling…”So you probably can’t change the shipping address. I really called a funeral home?”

“Yes sir, you did. I’d like to be able to help you, but I can’t change your shipping address with UPS.”

“Well shoot, I guess I wrote the number down wrong. Y’all have a good day.”

I laughed about that call for days. It still makes me chuckle. It’s a perfect illustration of someone who was listening with the intent to reply not to understand or, I suppose, not listening at all.

Listening to understand seems to be in very short supply these days.

I don’t need to tell you how polarized our society is becoming. Every issue seems to be reduced to an ‘us vs. them’ argument. We do an awful lot of talking about things, but we don’t do a lot of listening. We certainly aren’t listening to understand.

At a recent family dinner, a topic came up that is controversial in our part of the world. What followed was pretty typical for that kind of discussion – the voices got increasingly louder and one person had barely finished speaking before someone else was diving in. It wasn’t so much a conversation as a verbal mêlée.

“…we had talk enough but no conversation; there was nothing discussed.” ~ Samuel Johnson

There were several differing opinions being voiced around the dinner table and I don’t think any of us went home that evening feeling like we were either heard or understood. All we walked away knowing was that we didn’t agree. At all.

I grew up in a family where controversial topics were often talked about, argued about, truth be told. There always seemed to be someone in the mood to play devil’s advocate by stirring the pot and then settling back to watch tempers flare. Holiday dinners nearly always ended with someone going home angry.

My family is large and the odds of all of us agreeing on any topic are remote to say the least. Have you ever met someone with whom you agreed 100% on absolutely everything? Me neither.

That’s ok, isn’t it? I mean, after all, isn’t everyone is entitled to their own opinion? Or do we really mean only as long as it agrees with our own?

Christmas is coming and we will soon be gathering again with family and friends. Once the turkey has been served and the table talk starts how can we change the usual pattern of conversation? How can we make sure that this year, no one goes home angry?

I have a few things I’m going to practice.

Talk less and listen more

“You were born with two ears and one mouth so you can

listen twice as much as you talk.” ~ Epicetus

It’s hard to hear other people while you’re talking and it’s even harder to learn. The opportunity to learn something new is only available when I am willing to listen.

Be present

I’m going to work on giving all my attention to the person I’m talking with instead using one ear to listen to the other conversations around the table in case they might be more interesting than the one I’m having. My mother would call that showing respect and she would be right.

Ask more questions

Remember writing reports in elementary school? We were trained to use the same tools professional journalist use: ask the 5w’s and the h – who, what, when, where, why, and how. Open-ended questions give the opportunity for more personal and meaningful explanations. For example, “Why do you think that is true?” or “How does that make you feel?”

I know.

None of those things are rocket science, but when something we believe is challenged it’s hard to stay objective and not get carried away with our emotions. Keeping things simple might make them easier to put into practice.

And it just might make our holiday conversations a bit merrier this year.

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4 Replies to “Conversations…do you hear what I hear?”

  1. What a fantastic reminder to listen actively. Mr. Y’all will now long play a great role in educating others on what not to do! Great post.

  2. You provided us with another interesting & thought provoking read!!! Well done!!!

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