The Art of Listening

October 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?”

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  • Gibrán says:

    This is a profound and courageous contemplation Cynthia. I totally see the concern with giving the illusion of agreement or consent, or the old addage about “silence is complicit” comes to mind.

    But I do think that fundamentally, true listenting, the sort that fully recognizes the humanity of the other, the sort that is “one with that humanity” does dramatically increase the possibilities for real change.

    Disagreement from this space, even opposition from this space, is of a very different nature than the sort of stance that holds up a pre-defined point of view and I think it holds more promise.

    Thank you for the boldness of this contemplation.

  • Linda says:

    It also seems to me that often listening in this way changes the listener as much as the speaker. To really hear someone’s humanity can let us understand more of who the other person is – rather than going to right or wrong, agree or disagree, like or dislike. Beautiful contemplation!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I agree with you both, and I also feel challenged because I am often in circumstances that don’t fully allow for this kind of interaction. Time may be short, relationships may be shallow, stakes around getting a group to a specific agreement may feel too high, I may be personally triggered by what the person is saying, I may actually be in the room for the purpose of shining a light on a specific way of thinking–it’s my obligation to at least be clear about what I’m representing even if folks don’t agree, … the list goes on and on! And yet, whether my objective is deeply honoring another’s humanity or simply being effective, it seems that we have to carve out ways to do more of this kind of listening.

  • Gibrán says:

    The constraints that you outline all feel very real, but I wonder what we achieve when we adapt to them by stating our truth (specially when understood as THE truth). It feels righteous, but how far does it actually get us?

    I suspect that adapting to a system that doesn’t allow for depth in order to deal with things that demand depth might actually set us back rather than providing even a short term solution.

    Racialized Outcomes are objective, concrete, real. Addressing them demands radical solutions – creating the right space and context might be the most counter-cultural moves we can make today, precisely because it is so hard to do under the current system.

  • Sara says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Cynthia! I agree with you and Gibrán in that life and often the environments we find ourselves in are not conducive to the simple act of listening. I’ve been trying to take the smallest opportunities to practice, and find that whether the speaker or the listener or both walk away feeling better and more clearly understood, a small success is had for all.

    I can understand how there is fear that listening could be construed as agreement, especially if it revolves around our core beliefs and values. I’ve felt most vulnerable and open when I’m in a space of understanding and exchange, though, and feel that listening is not only a tool for exploration, but also healing, compassion, and mutual understanding. I lived in South Africa for a while and developed a deep appreciation for Truth and Reconciliation – all had stories to share, and all deserved to be heard. The Boston Busing/Desegregation Project exemplifies similar principles, focusing on the stories rather than their worthiness or validity.

    I appreciate this dialogue and the reminder of the importance of listening, and I look forward to learning more in the spaces we intentionally create and the spaces we inadvertently find.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Sara! Would love to hear more about your South Africa experience.

  • Susan Wright says:

    Thank you for your honest experience and the excerpts. The comments about this post essentially speak to the power of deep listening and creating the context is which this happens – what a gift! So often agendas and opinions can get in the way of true listening, imagine the possibilities when the practice of listening is taken up within difficult conversations.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks all. This inquiry reminds me of Adam Kahane’s book, Power and Love-A theory of social change. He built his book around Dr. King’s notion that “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

    There are lots of folks who enter from the love side, and others from the power side of the equation, each with a certain mistrust of the other. One challenge for us all is to balance and meld these two incredibly powerful and necessary forces for change.

  • Linda says:

    Just found this quote from Pema Chodron, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers: “The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”.

    All of this is so much easier said than done. I generally learn so much more about myself in the process of listening than any other time. And am not always very successful!!

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