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Undivided attention

We had a couple of pleasant telephone calls recently. Amazingly, they came from telemarketers.

We had a couple of pleasant telephone calls recently. Amazingly, they came from telemarketers.

They didn’t start by asking, “And how are you today?” They introduced themselves, and explained their reason for calling.

They did not read from a script. They knew their subject; they could talk about it intelligently.

And I know this may sound prejudiced, but they did not sound as if they might be calling from India or Mexico.

The caller from the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation called to thank us for contributing regularly for more than 25 years. He knew about our history of giving; he didn’t know the reason – that we once had a son with CF.

When Joan mentioned that fact, he didn’t ooze fake sympathy. Nor did he try to exploit our loss to increase our annual donation.

Similarly, the caller from Friends of Canadian Broadcasting didn’t know that I had once worked for the now-imperilled CBC, 40 years ago. But when I mentioned that experience, she asked perceptive questions. She sounded genuinely interested.

If these were marketing ploys, they were brilliantly done. I was already favourably inclined towards those organizations; I will be more so in future.

But it makes me wonder if other telemarketers are trained to ignore the human document they’re dealing with. Whatever I say, they charge full-speed-ahead ahead with their packaged text.

Until I hang up on them.

“Human document” – that’s a term I learned from an early practitioner of CPE, clinical pastoral education. He said it had revolutionized his ministry. He realized, he said, that he needed to focus not on the task, not on the problem, not on the theory, but on the person.

The person.... What a startling idea...

What could be learned from that individual far surpassed what could be learned from textbooks, lab tests, or clipboards.

Whether that person was in a hospital bed, or sitting in a pew. In a psychiatric ward, or in a counselling chair. In palliative care, or on the telephone.

Why is it so hard, for so many of us, to pay attention to the person we’re talking to? Oops, even my question reveals the problem. We talk to others. We talk at them. But how often to do we talk with them?

How often do we converse without having our own agenda to promote? How often do we hold back a witty story, a shard of wisdom, a sales pitch for our point of view, so that we can truly hear what the other person is saying – and even what they’re carefully not saying?

Two friends are losing their wives to terminal illness. Both will talk about the past, and about the present. Both avoid the future.

When they’re willing to talk about such things, I hope I will have the patience, the sensitivity, just to listen. Without offering advice. Without imposing my own perspectives.

I hope I will pay attention to their “human document.”

And I hope they will know that I won’t hang up on them.

Jim Taylor welcomes comments. Send e-mails to