Oklahoma Bar Journal
The Back Page | Listen
By John Morris Williams
When I was in law school, a firm I worked for always sent the “crazy” calls to me. I got a call from a lady who shouted into the phone, “They killed my parrot, and they are killing me.” Supposedly, her next-door neighbor was doing something on the property that was bad, and she wanted it stopped. I didn’t ask many questions and got off the call as soon as I could.
About six months later, there was a front-page story in the paper about a lady who was sick, and her parrot had already died. The lady was next door to what would become the largest Superfund contamination site in the United States. Millions of dollars in legal fees were paid out over the years as the site was being cleaned up. It sounded very familiar.
The fact is I didn’t listen to the lady’s full story. Had I been a licensed attorney with knowledge of environmental law, it probably would have been the biggest case of my career. From that experience, I learned a very valuable lesson: Always listen to other people’s stories. Some of them are rather incredible. However, sometimes incredible things happen to people, and they sound a bit out of kilter when they tell their stories.
After reading the article, I felt remorseful that I had not given her more time and listened better. From that moment on, I swore I would listen to all the stories. I can tell you that I heard some stories during my time as executive director of the OBA. Whether they called or just stopped by, I tried to always make time. Oftentimes, the folks had some mental health challenges. They deserve to be heard too. My experience is they are often not treated kindly, and a kind listening ear often calms them, and they appreciate someone listening. Even if I could not be of help, almost every one of those encounters ended in the person being grateful that someone had listened.
On occasion, I have had an angry person, even a member or two, call me upset. I usually knew the call was coming, and staff well prepared me with information. We weren’t perfect, but we were pretty good, and I got very few of those calls. Upon answering, I always asked the caller to tell me their story. After they finished, I responded, “If that had happened to me, I’d be madder than you are.” That always caused a pause in the conversation. Whereupon I would go over the facts that were in our records, and almost always, the mistake was not on our end. I first listened rather than engage in a defensive conversation. I actually made several friends in that process, all because I chose to hear someone’s story. Even if it was accusatory or angry, I felt the person had the right to be heard.
Sometimes in our business, people need to be heard. Their day in court is sometimes what is needed. An acknowledgment that they have a story to tell. Sometimes it’s just listening when you can offer no solution except to grant the person some kindness and courtesy. Sometimes it’s a multibillion-dollar environmental case.
I never had a multibillion-dollar call like the one I received my last semester of law school. But I have had hundreds, if not thousands, of priceless calls where I have listened to other people’s stories. Each one of them affirmed that a kind, listening ear is pretty good medicine for the world.
John Morris Williams is the executive director emeritus of the OBA.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 95 Vol 8 (October 2023)
Statements or opinions expressed in the Oklahoma Bar Journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma Bar Association, its officers, Board of Governors, Board of Editors or staff.