One of the simplest ways we can show patience is listening. It's also probably the most frequent opportunity we have to show patience with others, during everyday conversations. And despite how deceptively simple it is to do, at least in concept, it can be unimaginably impactful. Someone who learned that lesson firsthand is Michael McGlinn.
When Michael was a sophomore at Notre Dame, he was an offensive lineman on the football team. And this was during Lou Holtz's time as head coach, in the middle of a 9-year streak of bowl game appearances. Well, at around 300 pounds, Michael played second string to All-American lineman Lindsay Knapp who was in line to graduate the following year. And having red-shirted his first year, that left Michael 3 years to play starting lineman on one of the best college teams in the country, under arguably one of the best football coaches in history. So, his prospects for a career in the NFL already looked pretty good.
Well, August meant two-a-day practices for the team. But it also meant summer housing. All scholarship athletes move into one athletic dorm for the summer and don't go back to their regular dorms until they open for the next academic year. At least, that's what they're supposed to do. But Michael and his friend Pete made other arrangements. A graduate student offered them her apartment for the summer since she would be at home and wouldn't need it.
So, The boys got a more adventuresome place to live off-campus for the summer, and she got her apartment guarded by two of Notre Dame's football players. It seemed like a good deal for both – until that is, she came back to campus unexpectedly a few days early.
Michael and Pete had already moved some of their things into the dorms for the Fall semester. But they assumed they had a few more days to clean up the apartment before she got back. When she arrived, she was shocked at the scene. None of the lights or appliances was working. Apparently, the boys had forgotten to pay the electric bill. But she could see well enough to find a hole in one of the doors about the size of an offensive lineman's fist, dirty dishes were strewn about the sink and kitchen, and wet clothes in the washing machine already a beginning to mildew. As Michael described it, "It must have looked like we'd been having parties there all summer even though we hadn't. Just a couple of cavemen living in a girl's apartment."
But no matter how you look at it, Michael admits, they hadn't been good stewards of the home and belongings they were entrusted with.
Well, by that evening, the grad student and her mother had tracked Michael and Pete down to the football field. The final practice of the day was just winding down, and the boys were all gathering around coach Holtz. Getting the attention of one of the assistant coaches, the women made their complaint. Finding out two of their players hadn't been living in the athletic dorms as expected was bad enough. But finding out how they'd trashed this young woman's apartment was infuriating to at least some of the coaches.
The practice came to an abrupt stop as the coaches called Michael and Pete to the front. Both boys were admonished in front of the grad student, her mother, the other coaches, and the entire football team. But not admonished the way a kindergarten teacher might chastise a 5-year-old for not raising their hand. And not even the way any normal adult would admonish a teenager for bad behavior. After all, these were football coaches. If you've seen the way football coaches yell and scream on the field at their players just for the way they're playing, then you can imagine the loud and angry tirade that might erupt if they're embarrassed by a surprise visit from an irate parent and her daughter.
Michael told me, "It was brutal. One of the coaches just went nuts! And especially at me." Michael had a reputation for being more levelheaded and responsible than their typical player. He was an accomplished singer and musician as much as he was an athlete. So he took the brunt of the coaches' outrage. Too much, he thought. He'd seen worse infractions from other players get much less of a response from the coaches. And none of them was quite so public as this one.
Michael was embarrassed and angry at how it was handled. The coaches ended the discussion by saying, "You guys need to go get the rest of your stuff out of the apartment. We'll deal with you later." But Michael didn't give them that chance. When it came time for practice the next morning, Michael wasn't there. Before long, one of the graduate assistants called Michael in his dorm to find out why he wasn't at practice. And that's when he told him, "I'm not coming back. I quit." Michael admits that as a 19-year-old, he didn't have the emotional tools to deal with the situation. "And it showed in poor decisions like that one."
Sometime that day he called his parents and told them what happened. He was completely honest about how poorly they'd left the apartment. But he also shared how unfairly harsh he thought the reaction was, and that as a result, he decided to quit the team. He always wanted to pursue music and art in college anyway, and football made it hard to do that well.
His parents' response? "At first they were speechless, perhaps for the first time in my life. They couldn't believe I actually quit the team. They raised me to thoughtfully consider every opportunity life presented me, and once I committed to one, to not quit. So they made it clear they were upset with me."
Well, Michael got off the phone more agitated than when he got on and probably spent the majority of his day stewing over it. But then that night he got a phone call he wasn't expecting. It was from his uncle, Gary. He'd somehow tracked him down in the new dorm at a new phone number. Michael said hello and recognized his uncle's voice. Gary said simply, "How are you doing, Michael?"
Michael told him the entire saga – every painful detail about how he'd felt unfairly treated and picked on and embarrassed – everything up to and including him quitting the team. And what Gary did while Michael unloaded him the whole tale was to just listen. As Michael remembers it, "He didn't judge me. He didn't tell me I was right or wrong, or tell me what to do, or how I should feel. He didn't remind me of my responsibility and the commitment I had made. He simply listened."
At the end of Michael's story, Gary said, "That sounds tough. I love you. If you need anything, call me. I'm here for you." And with that, the call was over. But as soon as he hung up the phone, Michael could tell something amazing had happened.
"I felt this enormous weight off my shoulders. Somehow I was able to release everything that was bothering me in that one call. The next morning I woke up and felt remarkably better. And I knew what I had to do. I went into Lou Holtz's office, and I sat down. I said, 'Coach, I'm sorry. I made a mistake. I'd like to ask permission to be allowed back on the team.' I didn't make any excuses or try to explain my behavior."
Coach Holtz looked Michael right in the eyes, smiled, and said, "Absolutely. I just need you to do one thing. I need you to apologize to your team."
Michael was so relieved. When practice started, he walked out on the field to stretch with the team. Strangely, just 24 hours before there wasn't a place on the planet he wanted to be less. And now no place he wanted to be more. When they finished stretching, Coach Holtz addressed the team, saying, "Someone on the team needs to say something."
Michael turned to face the group and said, "Hey listen, guys. I'm sorry for quitting the team." Then, referencing a nickname he'd been given his freshmen year by the senior players, he said, "I just want to be good ol' 'Cheese' again." After that moment, it was never spoken of again. Except that to Michael, it became a defining moment of his football career. Notre Dame went on to win the Sugar Bowl that year against #3 ranked Florida, and two Cotton Bowl games against Texas A&M his junior and senior year.
But if asked what his unexpected moment of clarity was that year, he won't tell you anything about football, or bowl games, or Notre Dame. He'll tell you about his uncle Gary, and the phone call that made all the difference. "He preached to me without words. His non-judgmental presence was the most powerful sermon I ever experienced. It defined my development of sensitivity and mercy today as a husband and a father." And to think Gary did all that – made an enormously positive, memorable, and lifelong impact on Michael McGlinn – and he did so by doing nothing more than just listening.
So, the lesson here might be more for you as a parent than for your child, but there's definitely something in it for both of you. For you, just recognize the surprising impact that just listening can have when your child has made a mistake. We're so tempted to lecture and admonish in moments like that. But notice how that totally failed with Michael when his parents did that, and how successful uncle Gary's silent listening was. Give it a try the next time you're in a similar situation with your child.
But as with all of these lessons, find an appropriate time to share this one with your child, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
How is listening a form of showing patience?
Michael's uncle barely said anything on the phone. So why do you think that call helped Michael so much?
When you're having a conversation with your friends, how much of the time do you spend talking versus listening?
When is it a bad idea to just listen without saying anything?
Okay, in the final lesson, we'll talk about how to listen more effectively by asking better questions.