If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him. — Gautama Buddha
At the beginning of a busy week, I boarded my flight from Los Angeles to Detroit and settled into an aisle seat, grateful that the client I was going to visit had agreed to pay for first-class travel. A young man in a charcoal-gray suit, with a neatly trimmed beard, hoisted his luggage into an overhead bin, folded his jacket neatly on top of his roll-on bag, and took the seat across the aisle from me. A female flight attendant took orders for drinks; I asked for water. The young man wanted nothing.
The second characteristic of a person with a caring mindset is being thoughtful. By thoughtful I mean that the person is attentive to others, considerate, unselfish, and helpful. When we place ourselves in another person’s shoes, or see things from another’s point of view, and then act for their benefit—when we are being empathetic—we are practicing what it means to be thoughtful.
As the flight attendant was serving drinks to the passengers in first class, the people flying coach began to board. Among them was an elderly, frail-looking man with wispy white hair. He took the aisle seat in the first row behind the bulkhead separating the first-class and coach sections of the plane. When the attendant was finished taking care of those of us in first class, she paused near the man. Looking up, he asked her for a glass of water. The attendant explained that drinks were not served in the coach section until after takeoff.
He persisted, repeating his request again, saying, “I’m very thirsty. Can’t you please get me a glass of water?” The attendant again refused to accommodate his request, using the same dismissive, rather official tone she had used in response to his first request. Her voice had a robotic quality to it—it was clear she did not care whether or not this older gentleman was thirsty—only that it was “against the rules” to provide a simple glass of water. I understood that she was following the airline’s policy, but was nonetheless surprised and somewhat put off that she denied the elderly man’s request. Others in the first-class section seemed perturbed and concerned as well; we looked at one another anxiously, searching for an ally, but no one got up or said anything to the attendant. Suddenly the young man across the aisle from me left his seat, went to the attendant’s galley, and returned with a glass of water. He handed the glass of water to the man and returned to his seat, ignoring the glare of the attendant, who seemed dumbfounded and annoyed by his actions. The rest of us near the old man who witnessed the incident gave the young man a round of applause. Feeling relieved for the old man, but a bit ashamed that I didn’t get him a glass of water myself, I vowed to myself that going forward, I would be as thoughtful and action-oriented as the young man was.
During a trip to India, I was in a taxi in Calcutta, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, stuck in traffic. Once India’s leading city, Calcutta has been in steady economic decline for many years. It is perhaps best known for its crowded, fetid slums, rickshaws—and Mother Teresa, who lived there. It is a chaotic, crazy place: the traffic, the noise, the colors, the jarring juxtaposition of the richest of the rich rubbing shoulders with the poorest of the poor. The city is a storm of sounds, smells, colors that assault your senses.
My taxi was inching along a street teeming with people. There was a Mercedes in front of us, a rickshaw behind us, a cow, an overcrowded bus, shouting vendors, and men on mopeds whizzing by on either side. A man clad in rags slept on a filthy blanket on the sidewalk. Through the window of the car I saw a naked child, seven or eight years old, reaching his hand in a street drain.
I asked my cabdriver what the child was doing.
The driver told me, “Sir, don’t look at it. Just ignore it.” I was flabbergasted that he referred to the young boy as “it.”
I said, “No, no. I want to understand. What is he doing? ” Once again he told me to ignore the child.
Frustrated, I said, “Just stop here.”
I got out of the car and, using the local language, I asked the child what he was doing.
He said, “Sir, I’m just seeing if any food is passing through this drain.”
“What do you do with the food? ” I asked. He said, “I dig it out, wash it, and eat it.”
I was speechless. I did not know what to say. I was completely frozen for several seconds that seemed a lot longer.
When I regained my wits, I took the boy to a sweet shop nearby and told the man behind the counter, “Whatever this child wants, give it to him.” He chose a few things, I paid for them, and then we parted. My taxi had not advanced very far and I got in again.
I did not think ahead before taking the child to the shop. It was an instantaneous reaction, much like the actions of the young man on the plane. Having witnessed extreme poverty during my childhood in Bangladesh, I knew that any human being, if they were hungry enough, might be forced to gather food from the gutter. If someone is starving and cannot afford anything to eat, and I can afford it, should I not help? Of course, I realize I cannot help to feed all of the hungry people in the world. But in that moment, it was my responsibility to help that child. Nothing more, nothing less. For that one moment I was able to have a small positive impact on the world around me, just as the young man on the plane that day made a difference to the elderly man.
I believe there are moments like that in everyone’s day, although perhaps not so extreme or dramatic. Metaphorically, these are moments when a colleague, a friend, or a family member has a hand in a drain, searching for something they need in a difficult time, or who simply needs a “glass of water.” Those moments are opportunities to act in a thoughtful way: to be attentive to others, considerate, unselfish, and provide comfort or aid.
Barbara, the wife of Kent, a good friend of mine, hurt her back, and given the pain, went to see a top back doctor. The doctor recommended surgery for a disk problem. She postponed the procedure for eight months, until the pain became so severe that she could not stand up straight. At that point her doctor, alarmed, told her, “Tomorrow morning, six a.m., you show up for surgery.” The next morning he did the procedure.
Kent was in the waiting room while Barbara was in surgery. After forty-five minutes, the surgeon sent a nurse to tell him, “The operation will take another forty-five minutes, but the doctor will see to it that your wife’s pain is gone.”
After the surgery was completed, the surgeon came to the waiting room to tell Kent that all had gone well and that Barbara was in the recovery area. Kent and the doctor knew each other; they had friends in common and sometimes showed up at the same social events.
Kent told the doctor, “Thank you for letting me know that Barbara will be okay. Thank you for also sending the nurse to reassure me.”
The doctor said, “Normally the kind of surgery I do can take four or five hours, sometimes more. So I try to keep the patient’s family in mind. I know that they are concerned and that they worry. So I do my best to keep them informed.”
Then Kent asked him the question that was on his mind. “Did you have the nurse come out especially for me, or is that something you always do? ” And was the practice part of the doctor’s training or a policy of the hospital? In other words, was this common among doctors?
With a smile, the doctor said, “No, it is not a policy of the hospital. Nor was it part of my training. I just feel it is the thoughtful thing to do—for all my patients, not just the ones I know personally.”
Being thoughtful is a two-step process. The first step involves listening: at work, to your customers and your employees; at home, to your spouse and to your children; in your personal life, to your doctor, elders, trusted friends, or experts. A typical study on our ability to listen (there are many out there) suggests that we listen about 45 percent of the time we spend communicating with others. But results of such studies vary widely and depend on the group of people in the study. For example, a 1980 study of United States college students reported that they listen 53 percent of the time spent in communication with others, while a study conducted in 2006 reported the time spent listening was as little as 24 percent.
Despite the wide variations in results, it is clear to me that we can draw two conclusions. First, listening is the communication skill we use most often. Second, we are generally not very good at it. One study reports that the average person listens at only about 25 percent efficiency. A study of more than eight thousand people found that almost all of them believed they communicate as effectively as, or more effectively than, their co-workers. But of course that is not possible; everybody cannot be average or above average.
Whatever the amount of time we spend listening, I think we can all agree that listening is a critically important skill, and that we can do better. If you don’t listen to others, you cannot possibly be thoughtful. Yet most of us do not believe that we need to improve our listening skills; we overestimate our ability to listen purposefully and thoughtfully. We often mistake listening casually to someone speak as understanding what they’re saying. Yet too often we’re thinking about what we’re going to say in reply when it’s our turn to talk.
At the end of the day, our ability to truly listen to others is in our hands. We can all improve our ability to listen.
Listening to others purposefully involves not just hearing what they have to say, but trying to put yourself in their shoes. It involves empathy and understanding. Simply imagining that you understand what the other person is trying to say, without attempting to fully grasp why the other person is telling you what they are saying, does not demonstrate good listening skills. Yet I see this all the time in my consulting work. It is especially true of managers who are in other ways very smart people. They are so busy that they often don’t fully hear what the other person is trying to communicate; as a result, they jump to conclusions about what is being said, when they really only have half the picture. Why? They didn’t listen carefully enough, with purpose.
Subir Chowdhury is author of the new book The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough. He is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and consultants, who works with Fortune 500 companies to improve their processes, operations, quality and performance. He is the bestselling author of The Power of Six Sigma and The Ice Cream Maker.