Do you judge people when you see them the first time? Let’s say you see a man in a mall and he goes into a shop you would never go into, because the clothes are not your style. Maybe he has a funny way of walking or whatever other outward appearances jump in your face.
Sometimes I fall back into this old habit of mine; judging people right away. But here is a story about a man I met with a really funny walk that changed my way of thinking.
I was sitting in a waiting room of a hospital. The day hadn’t really started yet and the air was full of that medicinal aroma and the smell of sick people. The typical smell of a hospital. I was reading a book about listening techniques, when a little clicking and sliding noise caught my attention. An older man came in with a cane and dragging foot, yelling that he pulled such a high number. “What a load of crap,” he said. “It’s always the same here. I feel like a second-rate human being.” I rolled my eyes and thought what a frustrated old man he was. Hopefully he wouldn’t sit beside me. What I didn’t realize, was that I was judging this man already.
There were a lot of seats free, but wouldn’t you know it, this old grumpy man chose the seat directly beside me. I was annoyed, thinking that this man would not make my day any better. He fit easily into one of the stereotypes I gained with my experience over the years. Someone I didn’t want to get to know.
He started complaining about the hospital and all the surgeries he had had. He didn’t talk to me directly, but waited for anyone the pick up the conversation. I put my nose closer to my book, hoping I looked so engrossed in my book that he would ignore me. But, lucky me, no one else responded and so he turned his head towards me. I could see him in the corner of my eye looking at my book. “What wonderful listeners we have here,” he said sarcastically to no one in particular. It was then I realized that I was reading a book about listening and there was a man sitting next to me that wanted to be listened to. Well, he wasn’t my idea of an interesting speaking partner, but I overcame my first judgment and tried to open up a little bit.
He asked what my book was about and so I explained it to him.
He was really interested and started asking all kinds of questions about why I wanted to improve myself with this skill. What was my aim, since most people like to speak and not listen. I explained and he encouraged me with little “hmmms” and “yeses” to speak more.
Here was a “grumpy old man” who I did not want to talk to, because of my false first impressions, but by opening up to him and learning that he was a man of experience, I realized how important listening really is. He used all kinds of techniques that I was reading about and in the end, he listened to me and I opened up. We had an awesome conversation and when I turned the table and asked more about him, he told me his story and I can only say: what a life! He was never really rich and he never traveled a lot. He had many friends but in the last years they had all mostly died, along with his wife. They were married more than 60 years! His first holiday was after he was released from a work camp near Paris after the war. He hiked with his wife to the next city and stayed there for a few days. He said this was his greatest time of his life. Nine months later she gave birth to his first son and there were four more that followed. His children are spread all over Germany and he doesn’t see them often. He continued to tell me of all the places he worked and I was so impressed with what he had accomplished in his life.
My number was soon to be called and I was sad to leave. I thanked him for the nice visit and he gave me a smile, wishing me good luck with my newborn child. How did he know I was a new father? He saw the picture of him on my phone. He was also a good observer. And as far as I know, his listening skills came simply with experience. My day turned out better than I expected and the “grumpy old man” old man has now a place in my memory.
I was reducing a man with all his 90 years’ experience, because of the way he walked and complained. A great life wrapped up in a few seconds, because it is so easy to do. Pre-judging always makes it easy for us but it is not the right thing to do. Imagine someone summing up your life in a few seconds, not knowing more about you than his first impression. I’m not big on the idea, are you?