photo of man listening @ kostyha

Our Clients Need This ONE Skill the Most

Twenty years ago, prior to self-employment and work in patient empowerment and advocacy, I was the marketing director for my local community college.

In so many ways I loved that job. It was different every day and allowed me to meet and get to know people I never would have known in any other way. It required me to get out into the college community to meet faculty, other administrative departments, and students. It required me to have good relations with the press, and because it was during a recession, it required me to be creative and clever to bring in new students. Community colleges attracted so many non-traditional students — those who were older, or had been laid-off, or wanted to change careers; they had such interesting backgrounds and dreams. And the biggest challenge – the advent of using the internet for marketing. Can you imagine? Attracting students by using the cool new surfing tool – the World Wide Web!

As I said… I just loved that job.

But, unfortunately, yes, there was a downside, too.

The politics!

Like all bureaucracies, the power was in the hands of a few, and they wielded it in so very many uncomfortable ways. Long before I took the job, the discord had given rise to powerful unions, ingrained cynicism, an undercurrent (and sometimes not-so-under) of distrust and disdain, pervasive in every meeting, every conversation between administration and faculty, college and county government, or even (too often) faculty and students.

All that negativity ranged from the sublime: Faculty, frustrated with stalled negotiations of their contracts stuck bright orange signs to the exterior windows of all the campus buildings in protest.

To the ridiculous: Enraged, the County Executive grabbed the college president by the necktie, right under his chin, and threw him up against a full-length window. Shortly afterward it was the college president who… um…. “resigned.”

Turbulent times, for sure. And then….

A few years of transition, after which a new president was hired — by those same power brokers who somehow must have decided that they needed to soften their image. The new president, Dr. Debbie Sydow, jumped into what amounted to a fiery volcano of negativity, ready to erupt or explode.

Surprisingly – amazingly! – within just a few years, she had tamed the beast. Attitudes had improved immensely, respect began to return to campus, cynical edges softened, enrollments increased, new buildings were built, student surveys showed improving experiences….

If you’ve paying any attention to this post so far, you have to ask, “How on earth did she do that?”

The answer is incredibly simple, and wholly complex.

Dr. Sydow listened. And I mean – she listened with intent. She invited individuals and groups to come together to discuss the many aspects of community college experience – students, parents, alumni, faculty, administrators, maintenance and security workers, government officials, business owners, community representatives, and others. Except for asking a question or requesting clarification, she never spoke. Her questions got to the heart of what was good and what was bad throughout the college experience.

But never in those meetings did she share an opinion, or an idea, or a thought. She “just” listened. And took lots of notes. Then she prioritized, planned, pulled in the right people to help, and made it happen.

In my lifetime, I have never seen so much positive change and forward momentum in such a short period of time. Of course, by the time she had successfully turned that Titanic, I had moved on to different marketing pastures. I observed from the sidelines; respecting the huge chasm she had traversed, the enormous wounds she had healed. Knowing where her work at the college had begun, and what Dr. Sydow had been able to accomplish during her tenure – still today I am astounded and oh, so very impressed.

What a lesson for us all!

… a lesson we can implement immediately, this very moment, to improve our own lives, the lives of our loved ones, and (most relevant to this blog) the lives of the clients who hire us to cross the healthcare system chasms, to prevent or begin healing the enormous wounds the system bestows on them if they aren’t vigilant or don’t have advocates by their sides.

For some of us, it’s not so easy. For some of us, it’s difficult to just stop and just listen, and not want to throw in our two cents along the way.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we never open our mouths to provide counsel to our clients. What I am suggesting is that we be sure they’ve had the opportunity to say everything they have to say, that we don’t interrupt, that we don’t waste THEIR time with OUR own stories, that we ask only clarification questions while they share – and only THEN jump in with next steps and suggestions, even then, only when appropriate.

This is especially true during a first phone call before someone becomes a client. One of the big reasons people seek out an advocate in the first place is because they don’t feel heard by their providers. If we do too much talking and not enough listening, engagement with that potential client may never follow. Then no one’s life is improved.


Listening – it’s the one skill that applies to the work we all do, no matter what form of advocacy we offer our clients. It’s also the very skill that will improve our service to them the most.

I challenge us all to take a page from Dr. Sydow’s book. We can’t learn when our mouths are open. Just listen.


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