A few weeks before our collective world catapulted into pandemic pandemonium, my own world was rocked when I took my mom to a doctor’s appointment that turned into an emergency room visit and, a few hours later, a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. In less than five weeks, she was gone.
While I’m still processing her death, it’s what happened in the few weeks before she died I’ve struggled with the most.
As my mother shrank to a fraction of her normal size, our family dynamics magnified. Although we’re a close and caring family — the kind that remembers each other’s birthdays and always parts with “I love yous” — emotions spiked as my siblings and I grappled with the prospect of losing our mother. Last-minute decisions my mother made stirred up old feelings. Carefully buried resentments resurfaced.
At one point, one sister shared with me some pain she was feeling — pain both old and new. Part of it stemmed from a childhood perception I held a privileged place in the family because of certain qualities I possessed she believed our family valued more highly than qualities she possessed. I responded with incredulity and defensiveness. That’s not true. Even if it were true, how is it my fault? Why bring up these things now?
After a brief conversation, she decided to share her experiences and feelings more fully in writing to help me better understand the source of her pain. I refused to read it. I insisted we talk in person so I could respond and share my own feelings or agree to move on and get along for our mother’s sake.
She opted for the latter, afraid a personal conversation would feel more combative than she could handle at the time. We proceeded to coordinate and care for our mother without addressing her feelings any further.
The day my mother died, my siblings and I surrounded her, held her hand, expressed our love and gave her permission to go. We promised we’d continue to care for and love each other in her absence. And we have.
But now that a few months have passed, I’ve reflected on my response to my sister during that time and feel ashamed.
I’m ashamed because she was hurting and I dismissed her feelings out of a selfish need to protect my own. I’m ashamed because I felt like my perspective and feelings were equally important despite the fact that in that moment, she was the one suffering the most, not me. I’m ashamed because I now realize what I should have done instead.
I should have just listened.
Why? Because that’s how we show someone we care. We listen. We empathize. We try to understand, even if we see things differently.
The results of decades of research confirm feeling understood is essential to each of us and our well-being. It allows us to bond with others and dodge the detrimental physical and mental health effects of social disconnection.
It follows that as leaders, one of the most important actions we can take to improve well-being in our organizations and communities is to listen to others, especially to those in pain.
Right now, many of our black colleagues, employees, friends and community members are voicing their pain — pain both old and new. Now is not the time to be defensive with responses like, “But I’m not racist.” Now is not the time to be dismissive by suggesting systemic racism doesn’t exist. Now is not the time to be divisive by copying and pasting white pride rants and politically motivated memes on social media.
Now is the time to educate ourselves on the history and current events that have left deep scars on a group of people simply because of the color of their skin. Now is the time to read the stories written by people of color, listen to their words, seek to understand and feel their pain. Now is the time to mourn with them, support them and work with them to make things better once and for all.
I finally read my sister’s story. It made me uncomfortable. It made me want to defend myself and argue. But I won’t do that this time. Instead, I’ll seek to understand. I’ll invite her to share more. I’ll listen.
Why? Because that’s how we show someone we care.