Over the past two weeks, many of the peaceful protests regarding the horrifying death of George Floyd have grown violent. I am not an expert in racial injustice. When it comes to the issues facing our country right now, I’m a student, not a teacher. I’m reading and watching and listening and learning. And, like many of you, I’m trying to make sense of what is happening.
In Crucial Conversations, we teach that when people leave a shared pool of meaning, they leave because they feel unsafe in the shared pool. And when they leave, they go to either silence (shutting own, withdrawing, etc.) or violence (becoming controlling, angry or intimidating, etc.). Violence then is a set of strategies to compel or coerce people toward our own point of view. Violence, then, can also be viewed as an attempt to be heard.
People don’t always leave that pool of meaning on their own. Sometimes, they are kept out of it purposely and systematically. Human beings have an innate and powerful need to be heard. And when our voices are denied a chance to be heard, we go to silence or to violence.
I don’t know how we will find our way through this as a global community, but I do know that when it comes to conversations, finding our way back from silence or violence is about listening.
Here are three things we can all do today to become better listeners.
1. Check your own story. It’s hard to listen when you have already made up your mind. Our minds are built to make sense of the facts before us. We do that by telling ourselves a story about what those facts mean. But too often, we weave that story based on a limited, narrow, incomplete set of facts. And then we hold onto our story (our perceptions, our judgements, our conclusions) as truth. When presented with additional information that does not fit our narrative, we reject it as fake or wrong. We seek only that information which confirms our original story.
To listen, we have to let go of our own certainty. We acknowledge our story for what it is—our story. Acknowledging our story as a story creates the space for others’ stories. Of course, you will have a different story than I do, because your data stream and your lived experience is different than mine.
2. Identify the limitations of your data stream. We are all in some measure a product of our own data stream. And much of that data stream that has been constructed for us. What we see in social and traditional media is often carefully designed with one goal in mind: to keep us consuming that media. What we like, we see more of until we are living in a virtual echo chamber. As we search for information and truth, often what feels like discovery is in fact by design.
But it is not just media that informs our data stream. It is our lived experience as well. Our neighborhoods, our schools, our coworkers, our environment—all are a part of our data stream.
As a white woman living in a pre-dominantly white community, my data stream is severely limited. It is incumbent upon me to acknowledge the limitations of that data stream and actively make choices to broaden it. I can and do choose media to consume that helps expand rather than constrict my data stream. Choose today to seek out and befriend someone who thinks differently than you, who has a different lived experience, whether in person or on social media. That is just one way we can broaden our data stream.
3. Listen for truth. Too often, when we disagree with someone, we listen carefully to them with a single intent: to find the flaw in their argument so we can point it out. We listen with an intent to disprove them.
Instead, try listening to others with this objective: I will find something in what you are saying that is true. Yes, 99% of what you say, I may disagree with. Strongly. But can I find something that I think is true?
Our fear and self-protective instincts drive us to a place of absolutes. People are righteous or evil. All good or all bad. Yet that’s not true. People are complex. Yes, we can have strong moral convictions of what is right and wrong. But we need to balance that with empathy and understanding.
People will be heard.
I am writing this from a place of privilege. I know that. Listening will not bring back George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, or countless others. But change can and will happen when more voices are heard. When more people are part of the conversation. When the pool of meaning expands. Those voices, powerful and weak, will find a way to be heard. Let’s make it easier by listening.