Learning to listen, learning to lead

Dorie Fain
Dorie Fain is the founder and CEO of &Wealth, a boutique financial advisory firm dedicated to helping women who are recreating their lives, with offices in New York City and Baltimore.

Published 11/13/2019 in The Maryland Daily Record 

On Oct. 30, along with 60 classmates, I graduated from the 35th GBC Leadership Class, positively the Best Class Ever. The experience was so vast in depth and impact for me. With such an in-depth level of learning about the historical awareness of each facet of how Baltimore has evolved as a city, a community, a neighborhood, a system, a something that is not easily expressed in one word. Complex, simple, complicated, quirky, divided, together, black, white, same, different, proud, shameful, city, county, better, worse. We haven’t decided.

As each session progressed, these opposing concepts felt more evident. I left our last session in October feeling unsure of how I would regain my sense of optimism about the possibilities for Baltimore. After learning about the deep and painful history of intentional, deliberate policies and practices that fostered racism at the core of operational procedure in Baltimore, I am now more informed. I am heartbroken. I am also far more equipped to contribute with this understanding of how we arrived at this place in Baltimore today.

It wasn’t until Nilesh Kalyanaraman, a beloved classmate who was voted commencement speaker, shared his words with our class, that I started to regain my positivity and sense of possibility for Baltimore. The title of Nilesh’s speech was simply “Listen.” He shared the impact of the simple yet difficult concept of how he has gained so much in his work and in his life by actually listening to those who entrust him with their personal story. As a physician working in community health, as a husband, a parent, a friend, he has gained immeasurable impact from slowing down to listen, by intentionally putting aside his own opinions and ideas to hear what another has lived. Simple but not easy.

The sentiment struck me immediately, likely because I have felt the sincerity with which Nilesh applies this skill to all those around him. The interaction feels different; I feel heard in a way that isn’t common. It causes me to imagine the depth of what people share with him, simply because they feel heard, safe, not judged or rushed. The ways that his patients likely experience better outcomes with a less prescriptive approach because he is able and willing to get to the root cause of someone’s pain or discomfort. Imagine a world where all of medicine was practiced with this approach for all those who need it.

It isn’t a stretch for me to translate this to our work in professional services. The times when our clients reach our conference room and let out a long sigh of exhaustion with the weight of taking on their financial well-being. My own sense of urgency to get them to a place of comfort and the impact of how this urgency may rush past the importance of listening to their unique story. The impatience that creeps in when I feel like I already know the ending. I’ve heard it before, as many of us who work in a niche area of law or business come to a place where we can almost complete the sentence because we have heard the issue so many times.

Yet when Nilesh shared the impact of authentic and sincere listening for him, I questioned: Is it really true that we have heard it all before? Isn’t every person different in their lived experience? Certainly, in Leadership 2019, the concept of an individual’s lived experience was at the heart of what we were taught. While we can learn this as a concept in a controlled class setting, will we be willing to embody this in the real world? Can I slow down enough to simply listen and stay open to what that listening will reveal?

It is in this spirit of possibility of what I may learn from listening that my sense of hope has been reignited. I was feeling overwhelmed by all that we face in Baltimore that needs to be repaired and not seeing a clear path for what I can do to make an impact. The days when I feel the same about my own business or my issues in my community, or what my son may be facing — to start with more listening has created a shift. Imagine if each of us started by listening a little better, a little more earnestly and with a little more patience. Imagine what we could learn that leads to changes in how we see each other and, in doing so, see ourselves.

Carrying the weight of people’s most intimate challenges comes with the honor of being able to serve people at times of most need. It is often what draws many of us to our work, the gratification that comes from knowing we have really helped someone along on their path in life. The shift to more listening is the gem that I will take away from Leadership 2019 and one that I hope will catch fire in these important days and months ahead.

Dorie Fain, founder and CEO of &Wealth