So much has been said this year about the power of good listening. However, both politically and socially, it doesn’t seem exaggerated that we have progressively abandoned our interest in understanding others who see the world differently than ourselves. Instead, we are learning to isolate and beat our drums more loudly with the hope of attracting only others who share a like mind.
In the last 3 months, I have had the privilege of working within my organization to create equitable, inclusive processes and to expand our company’s diverse representation. Three months doesn’t make me an expert. As a matter of fact, it makes me an extreme latecomer, but I want to share what 90 days has taught me about the skill of listening, and how it alone is not enough to manage the distance between our social and political differences.
I should point out that I am a white guy who thought he was adept at understanding other people. For the last 20 years, the roles in my career have valued good listening, expressing empathy, being patient, and perhaps most significantly, being aware of myself and others. In this role, however, I was categorically outmatched by the interpersonal challenges it presented. Listening skills are not valuable unless someone is communicating with you. Just as a tree that falls in the forest may make no sound, I found myself asking if one can really be an excellent listener if no one is talking to them. Nearly every piece of content I have read this year, however, picks up the listening process at the beginning of dialogue. Unfortunately, this starts at the easier part of the process. The hardest part is creating a conversation and a chance to listen and to bridge honest perspectives.
Most people will have learned that active listening is the top tier of engagement in the listening skills hierarchy. Active listening says one should engage attentively, make eye contact, ask follow up questions, recite back for understanding, clarify, and summarize. It all sounds good, but how does the conversation take form in the first place? How does one ever get the chance to listen to a close friend about their experience as a black person in a mostly white work environment? What does the only woman on a senior team feel when more men are added to the group? Before you can actively listen, you must invite the opportunity.
“People may not know you care until you show that you do.”
The act of Inviting Listening is the hardest thing I have done with words in my lifetime. Inviting listening is exactly what it says – creating an invitation for another person to be listened to, understood, validated, supported, or all of the above. It acknowledges that people just don’t start talking. It reminds us that somewhere along the way, a system or the actions of ourselves or others like us told them it may be better to remain silent and save the breath. An authentic invitation is required to establish a safe space for communication. The listening invitations I have presented to others this year have led to utterly humbling experiences for me. People have so much to share and my mind has been awfully narrow.
I didn’t know how to engage a conversation about race
While inviting listening could apply to political, gender, age, disability, and sexual identity conversations, I found the most important conversations this year were those of race. Most white people are taught from a young age to avoid the topic of race altogether. My parents taught what they thought was best and did so with great intention. The predominant theme on race was, “don’t define or judge people by the color of their skin”, and followed up with, “you know what, son, just don’t acknowledge race at all”. As a result, I didn’t acknowledge it – hardly ever. Ironically, most white people I know received a similar message as children and today will go out of their way (FAR out of their way) to not mention race even when including it might be uniquely helpful in a situation. That we have put race at such extreme cognitive distance protects us from having to deal with the accusation that we might be racist. How could we be? We have literally never spoken of it. Right?
Unfortunately, this parental advice might serve as great sagacity in a future world where our social and political racial problems are indeed solved for good. Today, however, not acknowledging race has only removed important players from a problem that still very much exists. We are spectators, watching a problem unfold layer by layer, while we continue to tell ourselves the same untruth that our parents told us – “you’re doing the right thing if you NEVER acknowledge race at all”. Our parents unfortunately were not correct. Not only are we sitting out of one of the most important discussions of our lives, but we are likely missing the bone mass to intervene because we are still abiding by our parent’s advice.
It is time for you to enter the game.
How to Invite Listening
People may not know you care until you show that you do. Especially if you are white, you received similar advice as me from your parents, and if you now don’t know what to do to add yourself to the solution, here are some tips that helped me invite listening opportunities:
- Ask for time with a colleague, friend, or others whom you know and have differing race, background, gender, or beliefs. Let them know you want to understand their opinions and points of view
- Offer some questions and ‘conversation kindling’ in advance. Some possible examples: “How did you view XXX situation?”, “Could I listen to your perspective about XXX?”, “What do you think people are missing about XXX issue?” or, “Where or when have you experienced racism/sexism?”
- Tee up your conversation with two agreements for yourself. Stick to them. The first is “I want to understand you, not debate you” And second, say only to yourself, “do not become defensive”. This is not about you, it’s about them.
- Offer a way out without an explanation required. For many reasons, not everyone will be keen to dive into this dialogue. Try something like, “if you aren’t interested, no worries. Please decline my invitation with no explanation needed”.
It is important to keep in mind that for myself and others I know who have followed these four steps, the conversations are hard because you will not know what to say. That is okay. You are there to listen, ask for grace, and listen more. The more you listen, the more I expect you will realize that our human ability to become experts of our own worlds (through our own eyes) is only rivaled by our inadequacy to perceive it through the eyes of others.
In the last 90 days, I have not changed political parties, gender, race, age bracket, or economic position. I have, however, changed how I see many current issues through the eyes of groups that are not my own. I have realized that we can easily forget our innate similarities in place of focusing on our few differences. I have realized how quickly our news and social media can exploit our fears and endanger us with false narratives. Our road up and out of turmoil as a country and a collective American people will be marked with the same dialogue, reasoning, and understanding skills that has woven our human species together since our first footsteps imprinted the ground.
We must be unafraid to take new steps today, and it begins with an invitation.
This article was originally shared on LinkedIn.