We’ve all had the experience of being in a conversation with someone and knowing that they are not listening but just waiting for their turn to speak. I have a friend, let’s call him “Charles,” who is a listener. When I first met him, I felt awkward around him because when I would speak he would really listen. Initially I thought he was an arrogant, high-browed, critical, hyper-intellectual, snob.
After some time knowing this man, I realized that he isn’t any of those negative things; he is a listener. I used to go out with him to restaurants and bars, and random people would come up to him to talk because he has an easy going personality. He would sit and listen to all of these unplanned interactions with such honesty and sincerity that at times it could have translated as conceited. I realized that he was really listening to these people—not waiting to speak. His approachability allowed him to meet so many interesting people; he wasn’t arrogant, he was genuine. My criticism of his personality showed my insecurities, and I have learned a great deal from him over the past 20 years on how to listen.
I often think of listening as passively waiting to speak. I feel that a lot of people, perhaps men in particular, feel this way. Men might be hardwired to be “fixers” (the science is still out on this idea). We see or hear of a problem and we try to fix it or give instructions on how to fix it. Often, the person who tells us of their problem does not want us to fix it but rather wants us to listen and feel their emotions too; to join them in their complex life problems if possible. When my son feels slighted by his older sister and he comes to me upset, does he want me to fix the problem or just listen to his pain? Can I do both? That’s the real question. I should probably listen first and then if he asks for help I should act, but I should always listen first. My wife and I try to teach our children that love comes first; we can’t help who we love, but we should try and love everyone.
Maybe the first step to real love is to listen.
COVID-19, quarantine, and recent civil unrest have all presented many challenges to our lives, and one of those is an increased need for patience and understanding. We’ve become an insulated world; we live and communicate through our screens, which automatically distances us from people. Through the many meetings I’ve participated in over the past months, I’ve had to really listen to people before I respond, which has been difficult to do.
While quarantined, my son and I take daily walks. On these walks, he talks and I listen. I rarely say a word as he explains the intricacies of “Pokémon Sword and Shield” and the differences between survival, creative, and adventure modes on Minecraft. I’ve enjoyed his enthusiasm for these games and that he still wants me to play with him (at some point he won’t so I take advantage of these moments now). As a teacher I wonder what are the benefits of these games; however, it doesn’t really matter does it? I’ve listened to his excitement, and in that moment, I am there with him and listening without expressed judgement. He is excited and I am just listening. That is my love for him, my presence and no judgement.
So when people are crying out in pain and anger, maybe it isn’t my job to jump up and try to fix the problem right away.
Maybe my job is to listen first. Through reading, watching, and actively educating myself, maybe my job is to try to understand their headspace, to try and empathize with their rage instead of immediately attempting to take over and fix the problem. I now recognize that I am part of that problem if my actions don’t come from a place of attempted understanding and love that starts with listening.
“Charles” listens. He has shown me the power of listening. I’ve tried to use that power with my children and my students; now I am trying to listen to all of the people who are crying out in rage and anger at unjust systems of oppression and attempting to see where I can actively help. The saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words,” but it all starts with the words; and someone has to be there to listen.