A couple years ago, I wrote a piece about learning to listen. It was shortly after the 2016 election and my heart was heavy and my head was full. Three years later I’m still a better writer than speaker. Social media is still the ideal medium for articulating my contemplations, but I’ve learned to (usually) be more measured than in the past. I never have, and still don’t, see social media as a way for me to hide behind a computer screen; social media just allows me to put together a well-reasoned, fully coherent thought because I can write, revise, and delete when I realize that my comment is unhelpful in a public forum.
As 2017 dawned, I decided it was time learn to listen, really listen, and I did. I joined forums and sat back and listened to people’s stories and learned from their experiences. I made listening to audiobooks a regular practice during my commute to and from school. I decided to make more time for reading, making it a priority on school breaks or slow weekends. I started listening to podcasts, looking for commentators that were fair in their reporting and looked for nuance in discussions about a variety of issues. I made it my goal to be well-informed and open to new information, regardless of how much it pushed me outside of my comfort zone. And there have been times I’ve been really pushed outside of my comfort zone.
During this time I’ve learned one very important lesson: Listening means sometimes hearing what you don’t want to hear.
Humans don’t like being uncomfortable. We don’t like hearing that we might be wrong about something. We don’t like feeling like we’ve been lied to our whole lives. We don’t like knowing that our actions have caused someone else pain.
We don’t like pain period.
But that’s what listening is; it requires us to develop empathy and sit with someone in their pain. It forces us to stop pushing our views using poorly developed memes and put real faces and names and stories to an issue. It forces us to look into the eyes of another human being and see into their soul.
What would happen if we were to:
- listen to stories about the economic woes of our neighbors?
- learn about another’s faith?
- ask someone what they need instead of just assuming?
- ask about a family member or acquaintance’s relationship with their significant other without first judging the nature of their relationship?
- ask an immigrant to tell their story without asking about their immigration status?
- listen to a story of abuse without asking “why didn’t you leave?”
- listen to a story of rape without asking “why were you there in the first place?”
- just listen to a story of grief and loss without saying saying anything in an uncomfortable attempt to comfort?
- listen to a woman’s story about why she had an abortion without telling her what she should have done instead?
- listen to an unwed mother’s struggles instead of reminding her how she got into the situation in the first place?
- listen to an addict talk about how they got where they are?
- listen to the fears of people of color and allow them to tell their stories?
The answer? We’d learn a lot. We’d learn that there is a lot that we don’t know. We’d learn that we have so much more to learn. And then, ideally, we’d do just that.
As someone who thrives on deep, meaningful conversation, taking a step back to just listen has not been easy. I love to hear what other people have to say, but then I want respond, sharing my own experiences and insight, sometimes jumping in well before I should. I’ve worked hard to learn when it is appropriate to jump in and when it is not, but I still fail on a regular basis. And since joining Twitter less than a year ago (I know, I was late to the party), I have seen just how stupid people look when they either stick with the mob or speak out of turn. I know for some it is part of the game, a way to rile people up and cause arguments that spill out into society, but I refuse to be used that way. I try to sit back and learn, using my voice only when it is helpful and adds to the conversation.
I still believe that social media, while messy, is a potentially beautiful place where we can connect with others. But I want to challenge my friends to intentionally put themselves into situations where they need to listen to each other instead of just standing on a crowded soapbox. As someone who has buried a lot of things deep for only a few people to see and know, I can tell you that even with your friends, there may be things you don’t know. You may say or do something hurtful and not even know why it caused your friend pain. And if that is the way it is with those with whom we are supposed to be close, what does that say about how we interact with strangers? Even more earth shattering is the possibility that you may have more in common with others than you think, something you will never learn if you don’t take the time to listen to what they have to say.
Consider, for a moment, the echo chamber that you may live in. When controversial news breaks, does everyone in your life respond the same way? Or do you actually see reactions that run along a whole spectrum? I was shocked by the variety of responses that I saw to the release of Kanye West’s new album. Between friends, family, and total strangers on both Facebook and Twitter, I was exposed to so many different viewpoints, I didn’t know what to think. And while this was an issue over which I had no particular feelings one way or another, it helped me see how important it was to consider many different perspectives before speaking about an issue myself. It also helped to confirm that while I may have a long way to go, my friend and acquaintance base is diverse enough to keep me from just hearing my own views parroted back to me.
Meaningful change always starts when we seek to understand those who are different from us, in beliefs, experiences, and perspectives. I believe it is worth the effort, a way to break up the tribalism that haunts every corner of American society. I don’t want to see what we will become if we don’t try.