(Author’s Note: The following story happened on December 6, 2021 during a quiet afternoon at our office. I happened to be sitting at our conference table with my wife Emily. We were having lunch, doing Christmas cards, and just making small talk about all the things we had to get done between then and the holiday. And while we were sitting there, a phone call came into my office that changed my perspective on a lot of things. Read on, and I think you will see why.)
Emily and I had a lot of things to do. None of them particularly life critical, but we were in the midst of bemoaning the usual list of things that one has to get done during a busy time of year… get the Christmas cards out the door… finish some shopping… decorate the tree… clean the house… plan out what we will cook for Christmas dinner when our family is with us… These are all nice and important things. But none of them are life “critical.” Just a long list of typical things for people whose lives are comfortable, stable and safe.
I heard the phone ring in my office, and went in to see who it was. When I didn’t recognize the number, I ignored it and let it go to voicemail. (I stopped picking up calls from unrecognized numbers a long time ago.) So I returned to the conference room table and my conversation with Emily. A few minutes later, I returned to my office to get the stamps I had purchased that morning, and my phone was blinking, letting me know there was a voice mail. I listened, and was thoroughly confused by what I heard.
Hi, my name is… and my phone number is… I don’t know too much information about your group, but I am currently going through some struggles at home, and I would like to get in contact with someone who can help me. Please call me whenever you can. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible. I am currently at work, but you can call me. Thank you again.
This was strange, and not the usual kind of phone call we get at The Latimer Group. We coach and train communication skills at corporations, and are not counselors for personal issues. Since I was neck deep in trying to get through my “to do” list that day, I was inclined to blow this call off and not return it. This person either had the wrong number, or this was an attempted scam. Either way, my first reaction was that this was probably something to be ignored. So, I sat back down with Emily and continued slugging our way through our Christmas cards.
But within a minute or so, something began gnawing at me. So I listened to the voice mail again, and had Emily listen to it with me. We both commented that this woman sounded really young, and distressed. We noticed her voice cracking as she was speaking. I listened a few more times, and the more I listened, the more convinced I became that this was not a scam.
So I call her back, and she answers immediately.
Hi, my name is Dean, and you just left me a voice mail a few minutes ago. How can I help you?
She proceeded to tell me that she had recently moved “out here” and didn’t know anyone, that she was in an unsafe situation at home. Her colleague told her “to call you guys, that you might be able to help me.” She kept saying she was “out here.” I asked her where she was, and she mentioned a small town in Colorado, a place I had never been. Our business is located in Connecticut. So I asked her for the name of the person who told her to call us, and I did not recognize it. I looked it up in our company database, hoping I would see a connection. Nope. Not in our database.
So, to level set the story, I was on the phone with a young woman who told me a) she was not safe at home, b) had been referred to me by a colleague I had never heard of, c) lived in a place far from me, that I had never been, and d) that she needed my help, a kind of support we don’t provide and are not qualified to give. I was thoroughly confused.
I considered disengaging and just telling her I could not help her. But there was something in her voice that really got me. In all honesty, she sounded petrified. So I told her that while I was probably not the person to help her, I would figure out who was, and call her back. She thanked me, through her tears.
I hung up, Emily and I discussed, and I decided to call a friend who is a public school teacher Colorado. I tell my friend the story and she takes it seriously right away. She does a quick internet search for domestic violence support organizations in that area. And she starts laughing.
I know why she called you, Dean. There is an organization in her town with “Latimer” in the name. She thought she was calling them, and called you by mistake.
When I called the young woman back, I asked her the name of the organization she was looking for, and she immediately identified the organization my friend had found. Mystery solved. I explained to her that I worked for a company in Connecticut with a similar name, and that she had called the wrong organization. She apologized profusely, multiple times, and I told her not to worry about it. But as we spoke, I could hear the sadness and fear in her voice. It was unmistakable. And I was now involved. She mentioned again that she was not safe.
I told her to sit tight, and I would see if I could get the correct person for her. I called the organization she was originally looking for, spoke to a few people (it took me a while to get them to realize this was legitimate), and eventually got the name and number of the correct person. Multiple phone calls later, and I finally spoke to the case officer, connected her with the young woman, and was confident I could now step out of the middle. All in all, eight phone calls over about 90 minutes, to figure out what was going on, and eventually help this young woman get in contact with a professional who could help her.
I don’t know how this story will end for her, and the statistics on stories like these are not encouraging. Most don’t end happily. But getting her connected with a trained professional in her city was a step in the right direction. I have called her a couple of times in the two weeks since, to check on her and make sure she is OK. She tells me she is getting help, and that things are better. We’ll see…
Since then, I have been thinking about this episode, almost constantly. The list of things that had to happen, in order, for me to end up on the phone with her was not short… A young woman in the western United States, in distress at home, asks a colleague for advice on who to call… the colleague knows of an organization in their city, and gives the young woman that name… the name is very similar to my company’s name, which is located in Connecticut… she does a search for the word “Latimer” and we pop up on top of the list… she calls our number… my name is the first one listed in our directory, so she chooses my extension… she chooses to leave me a voice mail… and because it was a slow day and I was not overwhelmed with client work, I had just enough bandwidth and attention span to listen to this voice mail a few of times, with Emily helping me realize that this might be legit. And I chose to call her back.
On most other days, I probably would have been too busy to listen to that voice mail in the first place. Or if I did listen, I probably would not have taken it seriously, or would never have taken the time to figure out what was going on and get her some help. The series of events that had to happen in a specific way makes the whole story almost inconceivable for me.
Why am I sharing this story with you? I am not exactly sure. Part of me worries that you might conclude that this is a “look what a great guy I am” post. But I promise you that is not my intent. Rather, I think I am sharing this story because it is the holidays, and stories about reaching out a hand to others always resonate… or maybe I am sharing it because it jarred me out of my own self-absorption about how “hard” my life is… or maybe because there is an important lesson about trying to be present just enough to make it possible to notice when someone around us might be in distress.
It is really easy to get caught up in the moment and the momentum of our own lives, at any time of year. Perhaps especially during the holidays. We live in a fast-paced, noisy world… a theme that comes up a lot in our workshops. And the faster and noisier the world gets, the less likely we all will be to notice the little things happening all around us. Unless we make intentional choices to reduce the noise, or turn down its volume a little bit, it will get harder and harder to have the ability to hear voices that really may need to be heard. I am not trying to sound or act like a guy with all this wisdom, who has all of these valuable lessons to share. My life moves fast, and I struggle with system overload as much as anyone. I am sure I miss a lot of stuff. But what this story reminded me was that there are voices out there that need to be heard. There are people out there, who right now are not thinking about what meal they will cook for family on Christmas. But rather are just wishing they were a little more safe, or a little less cold or hungry. While I was worrying about getting Christmas cards out the door, this young woman just wanted to be a little more safe.
And so, I can’t stop thinking about how a bunch of things had to go exactly right on December 6th in order for me to end up on the phone with this young woman. But on hundreds of other days, I may have been too absorbed in my own life to hear her, and I would likely have sped right on past.
That’s why I am sharing this. I wonder how many other voices I have been too busy to hear.
So starting now, one of my personal goals will be to work hard to be a little more present. I am going to try to quiet the noise a little more often, and be a little more available to notice the little things a little more often. Be a little more present… that’s my goal. I can’t solve everyone’s problems, and I have plenty of legitimate and important responsibilities to my family, my colleagues, our clients, my friends, and myself. But I want to make a little more space to hear other voices, a little more often.
That’s my goal.
Happy holidays to all.
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