12/12/2014 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Listening for Yellow

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

One of the most beautiful sights of this month and this season are the gorgeous greens, flowers, and plants that make up the displays gracing so many of our homes, churches, and public spaces.

One December, a woman and her little girl visited Longwood Gardens, a 300-acre estate near Philadelphia that celebrates every season with thousands of trees, flowers, and exotic plants. As they walked through the breathtaking Christmas displays, including a room filled with more than 2,000 poinsettias, the woman remarked, "Have you ever seen so much red and green?"

"And yellow," her daughter added. Because, small as it is, each flower contains that distinctive yellow center holding every vibrant petal in place.

I heard that story many years ago from a marketing consultant whose goal was to help us expand our business. She called it "listening for yellow." The point was obvious: What do our customers see that we overlook? When we're working with a client or developing a project, sometimes the smallest detail can mean a lot to someone; and people may surprise you with what they see, hear, or think by mentioning something that may have entirely escaped your notice.

She focused on developing our listening skills, to ensure we "heard the yellow" when managing client concerns or expectations. Very illustrative and memorable, and also very worthwhile. And yes, I've tried to incorporate thoughtful listening into my business communication ever since.

All these years later, I find myself wondering, is the startling truth that I rarely "listen for yellow" in my personal life? Turns out, I've found ways to communicate so ineffectively it's almost comical. I've held conversations where words were exchanged, questions were answered, and points covered, but in the end, it felt more like a meeting at the United Nations without an interpreter than an actual conversation. We may have addressed each other, but we were speaking different languages, more or less making our best guess at what we thought the other was trying to say. Crazy, right?

When talking with my husband, my children, or other people I hold dear, I wonder how often I listen carefully enough to hear much beyond my own point of view. What details do they see that I missed? What made a huge difference to them and then--just like that--everything changed? Whether we're talking about a relationship, a job, or a problem, the question is this: Am I listening, or am I waiting to talk? Amidst the thousands of details that make up our lives, the bits of yellow floating in the atmosphere are too numerous to count.

But here's another way to think about this magical little piece of "yellow" in our lives, a way that's slightly more encouraging: Maybe it's the tiny, almost hidden connecter we sometimes forget even exists. Maybe you don't listen for it as much as you acknowledge it--small, but mighty!--and try keep it intact. You rub someone's shoulder for just a minute when you know they're stressed. Or you sit quietly beside a friend who's experiencing sadness and pain. You place a 30-second phone call to say, "I miss you," or you give someone a hug that last 10 seconds longer than "normal" as you part.

Tiny, fleeting, inconsequential? Not at all. I think it's exactly this kind of "yellow" that holds our lives in place.

I know this much: I can't change the world utterly, but I can hold someone's hand. And maybe that changes that person's world, at least for the moment. I also know it can't hurt to listen for yellow, or to offer freely that small bit of human connection we need to stay whole. And for the next few weeks, we have red, green, and yellow all around us, reminding us to give it a try.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

For more from Maria Rodale, visit