The Power of Listening

What do you do when professional collaborators (both of whom have become friends of yours) no longer work together and in fact have endured a litigious break-up?

If you now only work with one of the two former partners, but had developed equally meaningful friendships with each of them...what is our duty in terms of the former collaborator -- yet still a friendly associate -- and maintaining the relationship?

  • Will a continued relationship with the outsider harm the important business relationship with the individual with whom you still work ?

  • Should the Biblical adage "Do unto others as you would have done to you," guide us to reach out to the estranged partner?

First, a little context, while also protecting the privacy of those involved.

Associate number 1 -- we'll call him Michel -- is an internationally-regarded thought leader and advisor to many national governments.

Associate number 2 -- we'll call him Anton -- is a Western European entrepreneur who had some bad luck and admittedly made some poor business decisions.

Anton's business was falling apart and he eventually had to file for bankruptcy. He should have told his partner, Michel, much sooner, for Anton's situation began to have a significant negative impact on another business they co-owned. My own collaboration with Michel had continued, while Anton was now bankrupt and also being cast aside and labeled a failure in the much less-forgiving Western European business circles.

As I arrived in Anton"s home city, I found myself pondering the ramifications of reaching out to my old friend who no longer had the sterling reputation for which he had been previously known. He went from being a beloved "Mr. Everything,' guy, where he was greeted like family at every restaurant we visited together, to a directionless middle-aged man going through bankruptcy, and in his mind, hopelessness. No one would answer his calls any more. And he now had many detractors, due to his failed company.

I didn't want my remaining partner -- Michel -- to be upset if he learned I was reconnecting with Anton. This dilemma reminded me somewhat of the unfortunate and sometimes awkward situation when friends get divorced. Is it possible to stay friends with them both ?

Well, I did reach out to Anton and he was so pleased that I did. He clearly needed a friend, for I learned when we met that day that his situation was even worse. Worrying so much about his business and finances had taken a physical toll on Anton, too. He overcame a heart episode and also started seeing a therapist.

We had a meaningful heart-to-heart, and I offered him encouragement in the same manner my friends so graciously offered me when I had my own big curve in the road to navigate. To be truthful, I mostly just listened to Anton. I didn't solve any of his problems. I couldn't.

But sincerely listening to a friend, family member, or colleague, can be more impactful than we realize. I couldn't solve his financial dilemma. I couldn't polish his reputation back to its sterling former shine. But just being present, just listening, was the best thing for Anton that day.

I learned this important aspect of relationship cultivation -- reaching out to someone when no one else would -- from one of my mentors and colleagues -- former Special Ambassador Doug Holladay.

Spending a few days with Doug in Washington in 2016, I observed his closeness with William Kennedy Smith and also former South Carolina Governor, Mark Sanford. Both of these famous individuals had very public falls from grace. Yet in each instance, the former ambassador reached out to both Kennedy Smith and to Sanford, explaining that he has found that the phrase, "It's lonely at the top," is so true, and that these fallen figures deserve grace and support too. It was that ethos that inspired me to reach out to Anton, and I am so glad I did.

To contemplate: Who can you reach out to in your life ? Whose countenance could you improve, simply by being an engaged listener?...Or, to help you consider: Who do you need to forgive in your life, and who needs to forgive you?

Adam Kaufman