Richard Kyte: Good advice requires listening first

Richard Kyte: Reasonableness Must Be Cultivated, Not Legislated

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

<p>Richard Kyte is director of the <a href="" target="_blank">D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership</a> at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of <a href="" target="_blank">"The Ethical Life"</a> podcast.</p>

My mother has always been one of those people others turn to when they need advice. Growing up, I remember people calling at all hours to talk to her. She would pick up the phone, listen for a time, ask some questions, make a suggestion or two and close with a few words of reassurance. For a long time, I just assumed that’s what happened in every household.

We lived in a small town with no hospital or doctors. My mother was the school nurse, which made her the local health care authority. When somebody in the area was sick or injured and they weren’t sure what to do about it, they would call my mother.

But they didn’t only call about health concerns. It could be anything. People might call to get advice about dealing with a difficult boss or an alcoholic spouse or a child who was acting strangely.

All of these things became topics of conversation at the dinner table. We rarely talked about politics or sports or other events taking place in the world. Instead we talked about people and their problems: why people made the choices they did; what they could do differently; what events led up to their present situation. What they might do; what they should do; why they probably wouldn’t.

My mother rarely read books for pleasure. The people she encountered were her library, and she poured over them with focused attention, reading and rereading the chapters of their lives, hesitating over difficult passages, trying to make sense of them.

What impressed me most was that she often didn’t have satisfactory answers to the questions that were asked of her. She would puzzle over other people’s problems for days or weeks, not simply so that she could give better advice, but also to understand them.

Over the years I’ve had occasion to know a number of people like my mother who others turn to for advice. They all have several characteristics in common.

First, they are good listeners. They pay attention and ask good questions, trying to understand a situation fully before commenting on it.

Second, they are honest. They tell a person what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

Third, they put their ego aside. They are genuinely interested in what is best for the person they are talking to. This also means they don’t take it personally when their advice is not followed.

Fourth, they are focused. They don’t get distracted by blame or recriminations, and they don’t allow the person who is seeking advice to indulge in excuses or self-pity. They keep their attention on what can be done to move forward, even if that means taking small steps.

Finally, they are reassuring. Their presence is calming, in part because they exude confidence in one’s ability to face difficult situations, even in the face of self-doubt.

Ten years ago, my mother was in a serious accident. She fell down a stairway in a restaurant and hit her head. She was in a coma for several days. When she regained consciousness, she couldn’t speak. Her friends and family gathered around and prayed for her recovery. It took a while, but she slowly regained her speech, and then some. Now she rarely stops talking. She still has trouble finding the right words or putting them in the right order, but that doesn’t slow her down. Once she gets started, she can talk the tail off a rattlesnake.

These days her struggle is with listening. Her words come out in a torrent, and it is hard for her to slow down enough to really focus on what she is saying, let alone focus on what others are saying. That’s a challenge for someone whose greatest gift has always been listening to others.

Last night she called me. This is how our conversation began:

Me: “Hi Mom.”

Mom: “What’s that word?”

Me: “What word?”

Mom: “You know, that word when you can’t stop talking?”

Me: “Blabbermouth?”

Mom: “No! I mean that word for when I should stop talking but I can’t.”

She eventually filled me in on the context. This summer she moved to a senior living community, and some of the people there are annoyed that she talks so much. She was having a hard time explaining it to them, so she decided to write it down but couldn’t think of the right words.

Today my mother needs people who will listen to her as carefully as she used to listen to others. That will be a challenge for her and for the people she meets, but there is both justice and beauty in the reciprocity of her situation.

All her life people have turned to her for advice, and she has taken time to listen. Now it is our turn to listen to her.