Author Heather Morris discovered the power of listening when Auschwitz survivor Lale Sokolov told her his remarkable life story in 2004.
His story became the basis for Heather’s international bestseller, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, in which Slovakian Jew Lali Sokolov falls in love with Gita when tattooing her identification number on her arm at the concentration camp.
“I had no qualifications for this [to write his story]. What I did possess, though I didn’t think about it at the time, was my ability to listen. Truly, actively listen,” Heather writes in Stories of Hope.
Before becoming a full-time author, Heather worked in the social work department of a Melbourne hospital, helping patients, family members, carers and other hospital professionals deal with tragedy and trauma.
“Now that privilege of hearing stories is sent to me by readers of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and [sequel] Cilka’s Journey,” she says. “I am in awe of the outpouring of emotion shared with me.”
Heather shares her own inspirational story and offers tools to help others develop active listening skills in her new book.
In this exclusive book extract for RACV Club Members, she recalls her slip-up when attending an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Extract from Stories of Hope, by Heather Morris
Most of us can remember a time when we tried to share a confidence and our chosen listener turned away. It takes courage to reveal something personal, and to be met with indifference when you do can be devastating. Imagine how it feels to be a small child, offering something to a parent who is too busy to look, or an employee, bringing a problem to a boss who can’t be bothered to engage.
A friend of mine, a senior manager with a lot on his plate, once told me how ashamed he’d felt when an anonymous survey among his staff revealed how hurt they were that he never seemed to raise his eyes from his screen when they came to talk to him. He claimed he actually had been listening to them (I don’t think he can have been!), but he did accept that it was important that he was seen to be listening, too.
And I will never forget talking to Holocaust survivors at a large event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Lale took me there as his ‘escort’. Security was intense as the Israeli Consul General was in attendance and a number of men and women mingling with over 1000 invited survivors and family, dressed in black suits, shirts and ties, had squiggly cords running from their ears into their jackets. They could frequently be seen talking into the cuffs of their shirts and the bulges under their jackets told me they were armed.
A crowd of Lale’s friends gathered around us, all talking at once, caught up in the moment. I was acutely aware we were attracting the attention of security and out of the corner of my eye thought I saw several moving deliberately towards us.
Distracted, I lost focus of the fact I had been asked a question. Lale tugged on my sleeve, everyone was looking at me: ‘You’re not listening to us,’ he exclaimed loudly. ‘Why aren’t you listening?’ I looked at the dozen or more faces staring at me. One of the women said quietly, ‘Lale says you always listen. Do you not want to hear what anyone else has to say?’ I was mortified. Lale looked at me with disappointment. I apologised profusely, but the moment was gone.
Heather’s top 10 tips for active listening are listed in the book, along with other lessons she learnt from Lale.
Stories of Hope, by Heather Morris, Echo, rrp $29.99