On Understanding Other People

He wouldn’t stop talking.

He was average height, with a gray beard and hair. He wore glasses and a Bluetooth device over his right ear. When I teach a class, I’m normally the only man in the room wearing a jacket and tie, but he was the exception. He arrived at quarter to eight for a class scheduled to start at 8:30, and he started talking.

In addition to teaching the class that morning in Albany, I also had to monitor it. For those who have never attended an insurance agent continuing education class in New York (I’m guessing that’s most of you), there are normally two people in charge – an instructor and a monitor. The monitor makes sure everyone signs in, presents photo I.D., makes the announcements, distributes completion certificates at the end, and basically deals with any issues that arise (the temperature in the classroom being the most common.) I very much dislike having to act as both the instructor and the monitor. As the person who has to deliver the content and answer questions on my feet for four hours, I already have plenty on my mind. I don’t like having to deal with all the logistical issues on top of that. Nevertheless, my employer could not find an available monitor in Albany for that class, so I pulled double duty.

This particular gentleman started chatting upon his arrival. That’s not unusual; some people like to make small talk while they wait for a class to start. However, most people eventually decide to grab a cup of coffee and a danish, check their email one last time, or otherwise occupy themselves. This man didn’t. Instead, he talked to me. And talked. And talked.

When a participant would arrive, he would pause as I got the person signed in and examined her I.D. Then he would pick up his narrative from the exact spot he’d left off. And it was a narrative; my contributions to the discussion (for lack of a more suitable word) were to nod, utter the occasional “That’s interesting” or “Huh”, or simply make periodic eye contact.

None of his sentences completed a thought; each led inexorably to another. This made it quite difficult for me to say, “Good talking to you. Have to attend to other things now.” Eventually, though, I had to get the class underway, and I cut him off. I made the announcements, introduced the topic, and dove into the material. He sat in the front row and interjected with some frequency. That’s fine; I prefer to have a group that participates. Speaking to 15 faces who don’t say a word can be pretty deflating for an instructor.

The first break came up, and I got complaints about it being too cold in the room. I hustled off to notify the hotel’s front desk. When I returned, my new friend started up a new monologue. As I listened to him, several thoughts ran through my mind. I wondered how a person could so completely lack self-awareness. I fixated on how I could keep things running on schedule without seeming rude. I speculated as to whether he was always like this.

The time allotted for the break was drawing to a close. I told him that we had to get started again. He said, “Okay,” and resumed his monologue. After another minute or so, I said again that we had to resume class, and this time I stepped away and back to the front. I plowed into the second segment, my explanations of each topic interrupted by the man in the front row at every turn. At one point, he began to speak of the dangers of certain anti-depressant medications and to describe a particular web site. As kindly as I could, I got us back on topic.

After an hour, we took another break. This time I somehow managed to avoid a new conversation, but that wouldn’t last. As I went through the material in the final segment, he repeatedly poked up his hand and added his thoughts. The subject didn’t matter; he had comments on flood insurance reform, recent changes to New York laws and regulations, drones, medical marijuana – whatever I spoke about, he had something to say.

The class ran a few minutes longer than scheduled, and at the end I made sure everyone signed out and got their completion certificates. Part of me knew that he would be the last one out of the room. That part of me is undeniably psychic. Because he was the last one out, he had me all to himself. From 12:30 until almost one, he talked. I listened. I assembled the sign-in sheets and placed them in their envelope. I collected the pens. I put the materials in their original box. And he talked.

As the time drew close to one, I remarked that my organization’s hold on the room was about to end and that I needed to retrieve my equipment and leave. I got up and started edging toward the entrance to the room (the sign-in table was in the hallway outside.) He kept talking. I edged closer to the door. He kept talking. I shot nervous glances at my watch. He kept talking.

At last, his bladder overruled his tongue and he headed for the restrooms. With a sigh, I went into the room and began disconnecting the laptop and projector. As I was stashing the equipment in their respective bags, he returned. This time, I made no pretense of giving him my undivided attention as he expounded on whatever his subject was. I wrapped up cables, picked up leftover books and evaluation sheets, and threw out trash while he went on. At some point, he said goodbye and left, only to return a minute later. He made some additional points, then left again, this time for good.

It was more than a week ago, but I find my thoughts returning to him often. The longer he talked, the more I began to think that he was troubled. I am far from a psychologist, even an amateur one, but this man’s behavior was so far outside the norm that I suspect that he may indeed have mental health problems. I could be completely off-base, but I don’t think so.

All of us have, from time to time, become mired in conversation with people who monopolize the discussion. Probably most of us have been that person occasionally. However, very seldom do we encounter someone who is completely unaware of how he may be coming across. This man was one such person.

It’s sad. He certainly seemed like a gentle person, one who posed no threat to anyone, and if nothing else he is passionate about the subjects that interest him. If he has a health condition that interferes with his ability to connect with other people, he needs professional help, just as does someone with a chronic physical condition. Someone in his position may be very lonely. The very thing that animates him may well be driving away the other people in his life. I may be reading too much into this; I only met the man for a few hours. But I keep wondering what his life is like.

This guy doesn’t need my pity, and probably doesn’t want it. If he does need professional help, I hope he’s able to get it. I hope my growing impatience with him that morning was not completely obvious. I did receive an email from another class participant a few days later, saying that it looked like I wanted to choke him at one point. This makes me think that I did a poor job of concealing my thoughts. Bad on me. He was a challenge for me to meet, a person for me to treat with kindness, compassion and respect. If I was unable to do that as well as I should have, then I have some growing to do.

We get up every morning not knowing who we may encounter during the day ahead. It makes life interesting and exciting. We may meet people who amuse, entertain, educate, annoy, or upset us. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola called on us to always give other people the benefit of the doubt. Stephen Covey put it another way in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I tried, imperfectly, to do this with the man in my class. Maybe next time, I’ll do it a little better. I hope, after reading this, that you will, too, the next time you’re in a situation like this. You and I should always remember the words of one of America’s greatest poets, Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote, “After all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

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