How Skid Row Taught Me How To Communicate (part 2)

The great historian H.G. Wells used to complain about people he called “the goodness-sakers.”  These are the people who stand around all day saying, “For goodness-sake, why doesn’t somebody do something?”

I was somewhat guilty of saying that in the past … complaining about something instead of doing something about it.  And one such issue was the problem of poverty and homelessness in America.

Then I decided to do something.  I would spend my vacation time with the people on skid row in Los Angeles, doing whatever I could to make their lives a bit better.

What I didn’t expect was how much they would teach me about communication … lessons that I could apply to my personal and professional lives.  I gave you the first two lessons in last week’s Tuesday Tip.  Here are two more communication lessons they taught me.

=> 3. Listen.

Few things are more valuable than time and when you truly listen to people you’re giving them the precious gift of your time. You show respect and you bestow dignity on them.  And they feel it … big time.

My interactions with people on skid row re-affirmed that lesson.  To start a relationship or build a relationship, there is no communication skill more important than your listening skills.

I spent thirty minutes listening to homeless Joe as he sat against the wall of the Catholic mission in LA. He talked about being a Viet Nam vet and seeing things in Viet Nam that no one should ever have to see. He was haunted by the memories and haunted by the fact that he wasn’t able to do anything to stop the atrocities he witnessed.

However, my simple listening … without judgment, correction, or contradiction … seemed to ease some of his pain. After all, listening sends the message that … you’re still okay … and … you still have value.

So yes, listening is certainly good for the other person, but it’s also good for you and me as well. We’re bound to learn something.

I know I learned a lot after listening to Dave and Heather, a married homeless couple, both vets, and living on the streets of LA. I listened to their life stories, their struggle with alcohol, and several other subjects. But they taught me a great deal about hope, persistence, and faith.

Instead of being bitter about their circumstances, they talked about going to an AA meeting almost every day so they could overcome their problems. Heather even pulled a little booklet out of her shopping cart that listed the times and places of every AA meeting throughout LA. They taught me two lessons: 1) Where you’re at is not nearly as important as where you’re headed, and 2) Your attitude toward your problem is the most important factor in overcoming your problem.

And then they really shocked me. As I was about to finish our conversation and say goodbye, they asked me a question. They asked, “Do you know what we pray for every day?” Considering their circumstances, I figured they would say something like money, a job, an apartment, a car, or a thousand other things. Before I had a chance to answer their question, they said, “We pray every day that God would increase our faith.”

That was the third lesson they taught me: Keep your priorities straight.  Put first things first.

Bottom line, to be an effective communicator, to be an effective relationship builder, you must be a great listener.  There is no other thing that will substitute for a lack of listening.

The other great communication skill I learned on skid row was to …

=> 4. Ask the other person what he needs.

If you’re in sales, you already know about this basic principle. You’ve got to discover the needs of your prospect and fill those needs.

The same truth applies to your role as a manager, supervisor, team leader, employee, parent or spouse. Positive win-win relationships are built when you meet one another’s needs.

The catch is … you’ve got to ASK what their needs are.

You might think your employee wants a pay raise, but deep down he may need respect more than anything else. You might think your spouse knows you love her, but she may need a bouquet of flowers every once in a while to really feel loved. So don’t presume to know the other person’s needs.  You’ve got to ASK.

When I was working with the homeless people, when I asked them what they needed, I got an answer I never expected. The most common request was prayer. Tattooed, shaved-head Mike was one example. He asked me to pray that he might get a job, get a place to live, get off drugs, and help his ex-girlfriend get off drugs.

Then there was Jorge, laying on a cardboard box about 9 p.m. in skid row. As soon as the subject of prayer came up, an aura of reverence came over him. He sat up, took off his hat, thrust his hands into my hands, closed his eyes, and lowered his head. He couldn’t have been more soft and gentle as he asked me to pray for his family he hadn’t seen in five years.

When I finished my evening rounds on skid row and headed back to the Jonah Project, a stranger handed me a sheet of paper containing The Knots Prayer. It seemed to fit so well with all the needs I heard the homeless people express. And whether or not you believe in a Higher Power, I thought the poem made great psychological sense. It said:

“Dear God: Please untie the knots that are in my mind, my heart and my life.

Remove the have nots, the can nots and the do nots that I have in my mind.

Erase the will nots, may nots, might nots that may find a home in my heart.

Release me from the could nots, would nots and should nots that obstruct my life.

And most of all, Dear God, I ask you remove from my mind, my heart and my life all of the ‘am

nots’ that I have allowed to hold me back, especially the thought that I am not good enough.


Again, there’s a communication lesson in there for all of us. Don’t presume that you already know how the other person feels, what he thinks, or what she needs.  You’ve got to ask.

Dr. Zimmerman’s Tuesday Tip, Issue 983 – How Skid Row Taught Me How To Communicate (part 2)