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You’ll Never Guess What Happened to Me On An Airplane

how to be a good listener

As the plane took off, I turned my back and stared out the window, book in hand. That was airplane language for “Don’t bother me.”

I’d planned to use the time on the plane to write.

Evidently, the woman next to me didn’t speak airplane. She started talking to me.

I didn’t want to encourage her by showing any interest. I kept staring out the window, hoping she’d get the message. She didn’t.

Once the flight attendant announced we could use our computers, I yanked mine from under the seat , put it on my tray table, flipped it open and began typing. I wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot them.

“Where are you going”? she leaned over and asked.

I stared straight ahead and gave her a one word answer.


“Do you have children?”

“Yes,” I said, not volunteering more. I continued to stare straight ahead, while typing an article about compassion, rejection, and shame.

“How many?”


This woman was not getting the message or maybe she was because she sat quietly for a minute fiddling with a tissue in her hands.

I continued typing. I knew I was being rude, but I wanted to get the article about compassion, rejection and shame finished before we landed. But I could feel her staring at me.

The air was pregnant with another question. I sighed, saved my notes on compassion, rejection and shame, and closed my computer. I faced her, forced a smile and asked, “Do you have children?”

I figured I might as well give it up. I wasn’t going to get anything done.

A kind word released the flood waters from her heart. She began to tell me the tale of her life. Not surfacey, polite airplane kind of stuff. Real, hard painful kind of stuff. She was clearly struggling. She’d had two failed marriages, neither one by fault of her own.

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Her second one had recently ended. Her adult children had lives of their own and lived in different cities. She was in a lot of pain, grappling to understand. She knew Christ; she believed in His goodness. She believed everything happens according to His plan, but she didn’t understand it. Over the next hour, she shared her hurts, shame, and rejection surrounding her marriages.

As I listened, I asked silently, “Lord, she’s already a Christian. Why are you making me talk to her when I could be writing articles to help many women? She already knows about you.”

Finally she conceded, “I wonder what it would be like if I wasn’t even here. I wonder if anyone would notice.”

I stared at her. A thousand thoughts scrambled through my brain. Was she thinking about suicide?

Then she began to weep. God gently helped me down off my high horse and reminded me: Look, you haven’t experienced what this woman is going through, but you’ve experienced shame and rejection. You’ve felt hopeless. You’ve needed compassion. You know what it’s like to be in a hard place. I put you here for this woman. I’d rather you spend this time with her than writing a hundred articles for other people.”

Live it, don’t write about it.

“You do matter,” I began, gingerly at first because I felt like such a hypocrite.

I told her I know what it’s like to be in a hard place. I certainly understand the sting of rejection. Then I shut up and listened with empathy:

  • I offered my ear
  • I avoided offering solutions
  • I avoided telling her what I would’ve done
  • I avoided offering advice
  • I maintained eye contact
  • I didn’t criticize her decisions
  • I offered support in her pain
  • I empathized-understood, shared her pain
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I sat there and began to embrace my role as compassion in this woman’s life. I served as a reminder of God’s presence. He feels her pain, and He’s counting every tear.

He put me there to reassure her she’s loved and to remind her of all that’s good in her life. I asked her what she thought the world would be like if she were not here.

People’s lives would be full of  holes only she could fill: mother, grandmother, daughter, friend.

The plane landed, and she began to deplane, I reached over and hugged her. I put my hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes and said, “You are loved.”

She thanked me for listening. She said she didn’t know why she’d told me such personal details of her life. “This was a God thing,” she said. “I could’ve sat anywhere on the plane, but I ended up next to you.”

How many opportunities have I missed because I was focused on a what I wanted to do for God instead of what He wanted me do? How much fruit has died on the vine because I failed to water it through my disobedience?

I thought of Matthew 25:23: which tells me if I am faithful in the small things only then will God give me more.

No,  I thought, this was no accident. God placed her here next to me. She needed compassion, and I needed a lesson in being faithful with who God has placed next to me.

Who has God placed next to you?

Sheila Qualls is a former civilian journalist and editor for the U.S. Army’s award-winning newspaper, The Cannoneer. Sheila is now a stay-at-home mom, speaker and writer. Sheila writes from the experience of 30 years of marriage, five kids, homeschooling, 10 corporate moves, two dogs and a ferret. (May they rest in peace.) She inspires women by giving them a view into her world through a window of humor and transparency, one awkward moment at a time. She helps women navigate life’s emotional twists and turns so they can be the authentic women God called them to be. You can follow her on Facebook or on her blog at http://www.sheilaqualls.com.

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Sheila Qualls

An award-winning civilian journalist and former editor for the U.S. Army's award-winning paper, The Cannoneer, Sheila Qualls is now a stay-at-home mom, speaker and writer. She writes from the experience of 30 years of marriage, 5 kids, home schooling, 10 corporate moves, and 2 dogs and a ferret. (May they rest in peace.) She shares her life through a window of humor and transparency, one awkward moment at a time. She and her family currently live in Minnesota.