The Art of ListeningOctober 31, 2011 Leave a comment
Last week, colleagues Andrea Nagel, Jen Willsea and I facilitated the workshop, Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work for staff at the Boston Public Health Commission. One of the most powerful parts of the workshop was an exercise where participants had to listen to a view with which they disagreed without opposing, fixing or leading the speaker to another viewpoint. Challenging, to say the least! It raised a great question about not just how, but when to listen without attempting to shift anything. Like many of the workshop participants, I struggle with this practice, particularly when the speaker’s views fly in the face of realities I see and history I know, or when the very act of listening seems to give comfort to views that diminish my humanity. The struggle brought me back to a classic essay, “The Art of Listening,” by feminist author Brenda Ueland.
Here are a few excerpts. The entire essay can be found at the link at the end of this post.
“It is through this creative process [of listening] that we at once love and are loved.”
“I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all – which is so important, too – to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays.
“This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to…
“We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more beloved, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective and learns more and does more good. And so try listening. Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don’t, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.”
In the end, I wonder if this kind of listening could produce deeper shifts than attempts to guide people toward new ways of thinking about race, racism and racial justice on their own? Would it create a dangerous impression that I agree when I don’t? Or, could listening deeply to those who don’t see what we see build a deeper desire on their part to explore an alternate worldview? And, if it does, do we have the patience, as Lao Tsu said, to “let the mud settle until the water runs clear?”