Dinner was over. The lights of the Vancouver, British Columbia, harbor twinkled outside the ballroom’s large windows. The evening’s emcee gracefully called everyone away from their conversations around the tables as the awards ceremony was about to begin. The highpoint of the International Listening Association’s annual convention, at Simon Fraser University, the ceremony was the culmination of the past year’s work in the professional space that listening’s importance increasingly occupies.
The first award on the program was the “Listening in the Business Sector Award”. We had only been members of the ILA for two years; this was our second convention. We enjoyed being there, especially being invited to make a presentation about our work on the year’s theme of “Listening in Conflict”. It was confirming to connect with other people who are passionate about the impact that intentional and genuine listening has on our relationships and our lives.
As the emcee began to describe the background and work of the “Business Sector Award” recipient, before giving the name of the person receiving it, our attention became heightened. Looking at and nudging one another when he said that two people were receiving the award – “co-founders of a listening nonprofit, whose backgrounds were as pastors” – we whispered, entirely shocked,
“That sounds like us!”
And indeed it was.
After our biographies were read, he announced our names and called us to the front of the room, as applause rose all around us.
We looked at one another, sheepish, stunned.
“What? We just won an award?”
We navigated our way through the round banquet tables filling the room and were handed certificates and asked to pose for a photo with a real Royal Canadian Mountie who was there to offer his congratulations. Standing on either side of him, he put an arm around each of us, we smiled blushingly, shook his hand, and walked back through the crowd to find our seats again. It was very surreal. We couldn’t believe it. It was all a blur, as was the rest of the ceremony that evening. When it was over, we received many affirming words of congratulations, hugs, handshakes, and pats on the back.
We were staying in an Airbnb in a Vancouver suburb, because it was cheaper than a downtown hotel. It required a half-hour elevated train ride on the SkyTrain and a several block walk back and forth to our place, each day of the convention. On the ride and walk back, we were still in a dream-like state of mind as we attempted to process what had just happened.
You’d think we would have been thrilled and overjoyed at the honor we had just received, from a prestigious international organization of credentialed researchers, academics, writers, and practitioners, many of whom had been doing this work for more than 40 years. But we weren’t.
Earlier that day had been just about the most painful and unsettled day since we founded Someone To Tell It To together. We thought we were actually, literally, going to see the end of Someone To Tell It To that very day.
Someone back home in Pennsylvania had been texting us and our board chair, demanding to talk with us all right away, waving a threat of legal involvement if we didn’t respond the way that person wanted us to. We were scared to death. The demand had come out of the blue. It was devastating.
Originally, we hadn’t even planned to attend the awards ceremony. We thought we had to pay extra for the banquet and were trying to save money. It was a dress-up affair and we really didn’t bring the kind of clothes with us that were dressy enough for the occasion. Besides, there was absolutely no way we were going to receive any awards, we were quite certain. We were too new to the organization. We didn’t think many people really knew us very well or were familiar with what we did. We thought that to receive such praise and recognition, someone would have to be part of the association and have been active in the work for many decades. Besides, it was an international association. We had been doing international work. But we didn’t know that many people in this association knew that about us. So, up until that very morning, we had no plans at all to attend.
But two people talked us into it. Maybe conspired to get us to attend?
First, the man who was to be the emcee asked us. just the day before, if we were planning to attend the awards banquet. We indicated that we weren’t certain we would. The next morning, as we were sitting on a bench in the lobby of the university building where the convention was being held, waiting for the first session to begin, the outgoing president of the ILA, a kind and gentle British woman, came over to us and sat down between us. She, too, asked if we were planning to attend the ceremony that night. We indicated that we hadn’t really planned on it, since we thought we had to pay extra for the meal.
“Oh, no!” she indicated. “The cost of the meal is included in your convention registration. You’d be more than welcome to attend. I hope you will.”
Looking at one another to gauge each other’s feelings, and nothing mutual assent, we promised,
“Well, in that case, we will. Thank you for reassuring us that we can attend!”
As we reflect on those interactions, we speculate that they both already knew we were going to receive an award and wanted to make certain we were there for the honor. We’re very grateful they did. Yet at the time we had no idea what was to come – both the good and the bad.
Within a head-spinning amount of time, the day quickly went downhill from there.
The texts from back home poured in from our board chair and the aggrieved person in question. There was a phone call or two with our board chair from across the continent. More texting. Heightened consternation. Increasing panic. Rising despair. We even skipped out on a session of the convention to walk and talk through how we felt and what to do about the situation. We confided to a trusted friend in the ILA about what was going on. Her expert listening skills meant a lot to us as we tried to process the messages. We felt helpless, held hostage, and horrified at this turn of events. Angry, threatening storm clouds settled over us the rest of the day and night. Hence, our experience at the ceremony was less than ideal.
In essence, the issue at hand was that someone connected with our organization put us in a precarious spot. An action the person took nearly caused us to lose a hard-won contract and had the potential to damage the reputation Someone To Tell It To had worked so hard to build. When we tried to talk with the person about what they had done, and the damage we feared it was causing, the person reacted angrily, and the relationship with them began to unravel. It led to months of tension and to lost opportunities and revenue for our organization. We personally went without being paid for numerous pay periods, money which we never got back. We had to delay some payments to our team members because of it, but made certain they all were eventually paid in full, even though we were not. The person causing us this angst was someone who also had some payments delayed because of the lost opportunities and was demanding payment immediately. The situation caused us months of anxiety, in fact for the rest of the year, in addition to the lost revenue for the organization and lost paychecks for us. It was an extremely painful time, the worst period since we created the nonprofit. It really was. Even writing about it today causes deep anxiety in recalling the entire broken situation.
That was the context for our experience the day we received the award.
The entire period was one of the potential for lost dreams, of a lost relationship, of lost trust, of lost momentum, of lost opportunity. And as we indicated already, it was a period when we feared, acutely, that Someone To Tell It To itself would be lost.
The day after, a beautiful early spring Saturday, we were scheduled to share the day with one of our friends and an informal advisor, who lived in Vancouver. Saeed, a cultural Muslim man who immigrated from Iran, was a business professional and someone we respected greatly because of his social conscience and compassion. He picked us up at our Airbnb in the morning and for hours he drove with us around Vancouver and its outskirts. We toured the modern and architecturally diverse downtown. He pointed out the many buildings and symbols of the 2010 Winter Olympics, held in Vancouver. We left the city to visit a spectacular park on the edge of the soaring mountains ringing the metropolis. We loved its commitment to environmental sustainability and greenness and its incredibly diverse population.
All the while we drove and walked around, we talked. About Canadian and U.S. politics and our respective political leaders. About Saeed growing up in a Muslim culture and the gifts and limitations of the faiths each of us were born into. About our families. About experiences with depression and anxiety within our families. About the work we do and about how much Saeed appreciated our mission. The conversation flowed naturally and easily. We felt a strong connection with him. Our different countries of birth, our different religious backgrounds, our living on different sides of the continent were no barriers to our connection and conversation.
He took us to an authentic Persian restaurant for lunch. He spoke Farsi to the waitstaff as he ordered for us – a feast that was absolutely one of the best meals we’ve ever had.
We can declare without exaggeration that after one of the worst days of our lives together this day was one of the best days of our lives together. It was sacred time with a brother in spirit whose values, despite our differences in origin, were so intimately intertwined with ours.
The next day, we had an overnight flight home. It was another spectacularly beautiful day. We walked and walked all around the city, more familiar with it now because of Saeed’s tour. We ate lunch at a massive energy-filled and vibrating brewery. We attended a professional soccer match. Flowers and trees were blooming; winter’s cold was leaving. Families with young children were out in abundance, as were joggers, and those such as us, all who were enjoying the return of spring. It was a day to be reminded that we can rise above our worst moments and still laugh, relax, and see beauty among the fears.
Time with Saeed helped to redeem the sense of profound loss we were feeling just 24 hours before. Our day with him reminded us that we were not bad guys or that our values were skewed and toxic. Our time with him reminded us that out of the depths of broken relationships we can still have relationships of shared values and transcendent meaning.
After our return home, we had another reminder that our work and mission were resonating with others too. People were taking notice of what we were doing and that we had something of value to say. We were invited to give the keynote address, along with the dear friend from Germany in whom we confined our grief over the broken relationship, during our time in Vancouver, at the 2020 International Listening Association’s annual convention, in Seattle, Washington. It was another sign of redemption following a frightening time of insecurity about our mission. And even though the 2020 convention had to be canceled due to COVID-19, the invitation to speak continued to be extended. We were invited to present our address at the 2021 convention, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Then, as COVID’s reach was extended, that convention had to be held virtually via Zoom. But we got to share our keynote address for that convention and it was very well-received. In fact, we shared this story as part of our address!
And the resulting financial problems we encountered in 2019 because of the broken relationship? Our end-of-year giving totals for 2019 more than made up the deficit we encountered through most of that year. In fact, we had record giving and went into 2020 with the largest surplus we ever had! And even though COVID-19 gave Someone to Tell It To another heavy blow to our finances in 2020, as just about every other nonprofit, restaurant, business, church, and so many other institutions and industries also received, through hard work at gaining new grants, including special COVID stimulus monies, Someone To Tell It To is surviving – and starting to thrive. And, the incredibly generous giving of supporters has helped us to remain financially solvent in the face of this massive international crisis.
It’s more redemption, reminding us that our values, our mission, is worth working for, worth saving, worth all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that sometimes go with the territory.