When I had just turned 30, I lived and worked for a while in a place called Thurso, at the top of the Scottish mainland.
It’s primarily a fishing town (or, at least, it used to be) and, as such, has some wonderful parks and coastal areas lined with walkways and benches.
One of these areas lies on the road out of Thurso to Scrabster, which is a small harbour town that helps connect that part of the world to the North Sea and all the trade that comes from it.
Every weekend, I’d jump on my bike and cycle over to The Ferry Inn in Scrabster, as they have some of the best steak and seafood you’ll get anywhere.
On my return, I’d always stop at a little bench just off the main road, and look out to the sea and the islands of Orkney, Hoy and beyond.
For about six weeks or so, without fail, there’d be an elderly gent there, perhaps about late 70’s or early 80’s, staring out to sea.
I’d sit beside him, and attempt to strike up a conversation, but I never got anything but perhaps a nod or a grunt to whatever I was talking about.
It didn’t matter if it was the beautiful views, the weather, the local elections, the dwindling workforce as they moved south of Inverness, etc. – it was always the same result.
Until one day near the end of the summer.
The Timing of the Moment
It’s not that I thought the old man was ignorant. Nor did I consider that my conversation topics were so enthralling that of course they deserved a response.
Hell, I was just happy to sit and enjoy these moments with another living soul, who clearly enjoyed the surroundings as much as I did.
But one day, I stopped mid-sentence and turned to face my silent compadre.
“You know,” I started, “if you keep this up, I’m going to have to report you to the police for anti-social behaviour.”
The old man looked at me, and the first crack of a smile appeared on his lips. Then he was laughing out loud, and tears formed in his eyes as the laughter continued.
His laughter was contagious, and soon both of us were laughing like maniacs without a care in the world.
When the laughter subsided, he looked at me, still with laughter’s twinkle in his eye.
“Oh, Christ,” he said, “you have no idea how funny that actually is, given I’m co-chair of the Noise Abatement Society here! You’d be complaining about me to me!”
This started us laughing again, and we parted ways that day a little wiser, and a lot happier.
The next week, the old man wasn’t there. Nor the week after. It turns out he died of a heart attack at home a few days after that first and last time we finally spoke.
The following week, I took my hip flask with me, and raised a toast to my silent-but-for-one-day companion, and wished him well.
We Are Always Connecting
A couple years later, I was in charge of a call centre team in England for one of the bigger telecom companies.
As part of the role, I was to train advisors on best practices for interacting with customers, especially if they were irate at the service (which they often were).
During one of these training sessions, one of my new starts asked why we even needed this part of the training, given that irate customers would just be shouting and not actually listening to anything we said.
For the first time in two years, it made me think of the old man on the bench, and the one-way conversations we enjoyed until that one moment of connection.
I recounted that story to the new start and his soon-to-be colleagues. And I paired it with this little bit of advice.
“We may think no-one is listening to us, but they’re always listening. Always. We just don’t know they are. So what we say will always have an impact – make sure we say something they can relate to.”
Like the old man on the bench, and my belief that everything I was saying was falling on deaf ears.
It’s not that he wasn’t listening; it’s just that he chose how to respond.
The fact he did respond – even with just a nod of the head or a grunt of the throat – meant I was getting through.
That led to the magical moment we shared just before his passing.
It’s something we can all do.
Just because it might look like no-one is listening doesn’t actually mean they’re not.
Sometimes it’s the one-way conversations that are the most enlightening and most deliberate of all.