This blog post is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Mary Manz Simon. Mary met Fred Rogers while writing an article about the famous television personality, and they developed a long-distance friendship in the following years. She wrote these posts to share his words of wisdom with The Hopeful Neighborhood Project so we, too, can learn about neighboring from one of the best.

“Listen with your ears and heart.” 

That was a timeless truth I took away from conversations with Fred Rogers. A masterful communicator, Fred knew all about making connections. In the 895 children’s programs he taped as well as in our personal dialogue, Fred showed how listening empowers both the listener and the speaker.

When I attended the red-carpet screening of the 2019 big-screen release A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I was pleased that in the film actor Tom Hanks echoed the slow cadence of his character’s everyday speech.

Much like Tom Junod, the journalist featured in the movie, I met Fred Rogers when I was assigned to interview him for a cover story. In my real-time conversations with Fred, I learned to mimic him, and refrain from interrupting the pauses. I realized in our conversation that those gaps honored the fact that when you are heard, you feel like you belong.

After all, when we listen, we focus on what brings us together. Actively listening, even when we’re agitated or under pressure, can result in unexpected collaboration and cooperation. At the very least, we might learn something.

When speaking to large audiences, Fred often offered listeners a lengthy pause. Holding his watch, he would ask the audience to use the moment of silence to thank those who had helped them along the way.

Of course, we don’t need to be at a lectern to do that; a back porch or front lawn works just fine. Each of us can contribute something of value to our daily conversations with others.

My conversations with Fred usually included questions, and he expected answers. He would tread lightly, but he wanted to understand. Like some of his puppet characters, Fred was curious. He was an expert communicator but didn’t mind admitting, “I don’t know.” That transparent honesty often led to the next level of understanding.

Fred wasn’t limited to Pollyanna conversations. A friend had died five days before I received a note from him. He wrote to me about his friend, saying, “His life meant so much to me … his death did, too.” 

Another time, after we met with a mutual friend, Fred wrote, “I would have liked to have some quiet time alone with _____.  I was concerned about him. He seemed to be heavily weighted with some kind of worry. I would have welcomed hearing his story.” Although that quiet time never happened, I’m confident it would have included meaningful silence. With Fred, pauses were significant.

We can each borrow a page from Fred Rogers. Focus on the people around you. Love your neighbors. Think about those who got you to where you are today. Then listen with your heart. The silence will speak.