Learning to Listen

My grandmother used to say that “if you have one mouth and two ears it’s because you should listen twice as much as you speak”.

Today I know this is a bare minimum.

But listening is easier said than done. This article published by ActBuildChange.org  provides useful advice on how to listen better, so we can win over people’s hearts and minds.

When every conversation can spin into an argument, we are retreating to spaces occupied by people who only affirm us. We are losing our ability to listen to difference.

This is a serious problem for the state of our world. Once we stop listening, we stop learning and we lose our ability to empathise. This helps grow difference and division, them and us, hate and fear. This fire is spreading across our world and we will all burn if we are not willing to engage.

Here are some ways to help you find your ears again.

1. We need to get close

If you want to change the world you must get close to it.

As well as getting close to the people we serve and love, we need to get close to the people who are against what we stand for and those who stand still. You can not change the world at a distance. Working on issues of immigration, it was only when I got close to young people with irregular status did the work take on new urgency and meaning. It was only by getting close to political power, could I understand their agendas, limitations and struggles.

2. Be willing to get uncomfortable

Change comes through uncomfortable conversations. Where there is tension between two people and it is not all smiles and nodding. For example, that uncomfortable talk you are avoiding with your boss. You need to have it. Or the neighbour who stares at your headscarf. You need to address that. The local shopkeeper who looks at school kids like thieves, rather than children. Sit down with that shopkeeper. Lasting change comes through uncomfortable dialogue.

Not only do I believe you can speak with these folks, you can have good conversations with them. You can walk away feeling energised, inspired, understood – if you’re willing to listen.

3. Be Present

You don’t need to fake paying attention if you are in fact paying attention. Don’t multitask. Put your phone out of reach and be present in that moment. If you do not want to be in the conversation get out of it. Do not disrespect that person’s story, vulnerability and time by not giving them anything but complete focus.

4. Everyone is an expert in something

If your mouth is open you are not learning.

Approach every conversation with child-like curiosity. Always be prepared to be amazed and you will not be disappointed. Never assume because of someone’s class, race, faith or job, that you can’t work and learn from each other. We need curiosity and hope in all human potential.

5. Keep your assumptions at home

Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand. Most of us listen with the intent to reply.
Stephen R. Covey

Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

When talking to people who vote differently to you, worship differently to you, have more or less money; share your story. Ask them to share theirs. Allow yourself to see what you do have in common. It’s likely that you both have been through struggle and joy. You both love your brothers, sisters, partners, more than anything else in the whole world.

Use open-ended questions: who, what, why, when and how.

If you ask a complicated question expect a simple answer. If you ask a simple open question, you allow that person to describe how they really feel. Simple, open questions will give a much more interesting response.

6. Your opinion comes last

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

We seem to be much more concerned with personally broadcasting our opinions, than conversing with people different to us. All this loudness stops us from hearing the quiet, the nuanced and the subtle.

Put your opinions last. When you do that, people become less defensive and more open. They are likely to speak with greater honesty and a will to understand you too.

7. Speak to people on the other side

Ubuntu… speaks of the very essence of being human…My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.
Desmond Tutu

If you take anything away from this post, act on this. Think in your mind to someone who you see as different to you, morally superior, young or old, fill-in-the-blank. Find out more about that person you may have negatively stereotyped. Ask them for a tea. Together make it your intention to understand each other. Don’t persuade, defend, interrupt – just listen.

In South Africa this is called Ubuntu.

We are all part of a much bigger whole. Through understanding and empathy, we will no longer feel threatened. By talking and listening and getting that balance of conversation right, we can drop our swords and reach out towards each other. It is slow and challenging work, but it is our only hope of healing our world and building peace.