Learning to Listen

My Mother-in-Law’s Story

My wife was talking to her mom last week, who mentioned that she had just finished talking to a colleague. My mother-in-law, a white woman, shared that she had reached out to her colleague because she was hearing countless CEOs and companies say that they’re going to be “listening” a lot more in this season. Being a business owner, my mother-in-law wanted to listen—especially to her friends of color. Not because it is the right or en vogue thing to do, but rather because her colleague, who is Black, is a friend of hers. They’ve been working together at her nutrition counseling practice in Oklahoma for the last five years.

She called him to ask, “Have you experienced racism? If so, how did your parents discuss racism with you, how did you or will you discuss racism with your children?” She did the same thing with a few of her other friends who identify as people of color, and the conversations have been incredibly fruitful as they have led her to consider the realities faced by her Black friends, and her role in the broader narrative.

My Story

When I was at my university, most of my friends were on the other side of the “political aisle” from where I was at the time. We would disagree on gun control, states’ rights, and the ways in which our president at the time was showing up in the world and starting wars in foreign countries. And as we debated, most of those conversations turned out to be quick and emotionally charged. They ended with more anger and less understanding than when we started.

Right after university, I went to Washington, D.C. for my first job. While I wasn’t in politics, most of my friends were and worked for politicians whose policies I mostly didn’t agree with. Yet, the discussions that took place in D.C. were vastly different than the ones I had at university. I found that in D.C., my conversations about politics lasted hours and were void of much emotion. They ended with minimal anger and increased understanding compared to where we started. And, through those political discussions, I ended up changing my political leanings.

Bringing the Two Together

There are many posts from corporations and CEOs saying that they are choosing to listen. That is great and encouraging. Companies that I admire, and GAN itself, have personally hosted and led DE&I webinars and advisory boards.

Yet, as I’ve been reflecting on my mother-in-law’s conversations and the conversations that took place with my friends in D.C., I’ve realized that in this current season, we’ve been doing a lot of talking about “methods” we’re using to listen (e.g., the DE&I webinars, advisory boards, etc.) but haven’t talked a lot about what it means to listen well.

I spent the last few days digging into why and how my mother-in-law’s conversations (where she was seeking to understand — so that she could be an ally) and the discussions I had during my time in D.C. (where I was seeking to understand in the midst of disagreement— leading to openness to change) were so fruitful. I realize that it wasn’t only the words in the conversation that allowed my mother-in-law and my younger self in D.C. to have productive conversations. The posture of the conversation that took place led to productive chats. When I broke down exactly what happened for us to make headway in both of these scenarios, I came up with the steps to listen that have worked for me in the past and might help us today. The goal, of course, is that all of this listening leads to lasting learning, unlearning, action, and change. But it starts with listening.

How to Listen Well

Have strong relationships.
My mother-in-law has had friends who don’t look like her for years. And in D.C., most of my friends with different political views went to the same church as me, and I had known them for a few years before engaging in these political discussions. And, while we can definitely learn from people we’ve just met, or from reading a book, the best growth I’ve personally experienced comes from people I have “done life” with over the past few years. A strong relationship creates a space where we can challenge and be challenged. The secret, though, is to seek out friendships with people who are different from us.

Be curiously humble.
I could have easily started those conversations in D.C. thinking that my way was right and that there was nothing I could learn from others, but in reality, I had so much to learn. And, it starts with being humble enough to realize that I don’t have all of the answers, and nor will I ever have all of them. Having a curious mindset propels me to ask authentic questions. Humility and curiosity must coexist, without defensiveness, to have an effective conversation that leads to learning.

Be authentic.
I have to enter into these conversations with a genuine desire to learn from the other person. If I’m doing this to “check a box” where “I talked to someone who is on the other side of the political aisle” to prove a point, I’m not authentically engaging in conversation. I must enter into conversations with genuinely pure intentions to actually learn from the person sitting across from me.

Be empathetic.
One of my favorite books is Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett. She starts her book by saying, “I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in a relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s positions, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinion will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.”

We’re going to lack understanding, or even disagree, with others for the rest of our lives. And yet, once we pause to understand the other person we recognize that most issues aren’t binary, and the way in which the other person got to where they are isn’t simple. We’re complex beings who bring years of history to this moment. And, unless we can genuinely hear new points of view, we’ll never know what is possible between us.