What does it mean when i suggest we need to Listen to Understand?

Many of us are slow to listen but very quick to speak.

This feels like a particular obstacle for white people who are used to having the mic and having our voices heard.

Additionally, this feels like a problem for men who are used to having a dominant respected voice.

So when you’re a white man, like i am, you know there is double the work and effort in store for you. 

The truth is that most of us fall into the trap of thinking of and planning our answer while someone is talking to us, which means we aren’t really listening properly at all.

listen to understand quote

Listen to Understand

In fact, too many of us – and my hand is firmly up in the air on this one [trying to get better but often i slide into this, especially when i am tired!] – are in a rush to speak again. Instead of listening deeply and reflecting on and thinking about and pausing and then responding.

i tend to value my voice too much and believe it is valuable to any conversation [next time you’re in a meeting with a group of people, see if you can actively remain silent for the whole meeting and not offer an opinion or thought].

As the opening picture suggests, even when we are listening attentively, we will be missing out on so much of what the other person might be wanting to communicate to use. We don’t understand their context and we haven’t lived their life and we don’t share the same lens or current situation and so we will only ever be able to catch some portion of what is being said.

So it is important that all of start working on listening actively and with much greater commitment where the end goal is to understand what is being communicated to us. Not the need to offer any kind of response.

Active Listening Skills

Many of you will have no doubt seen well-know Christian speaker Louis Giglio get into a whole lot of trouble for suggesting in a talk with Lecrae that the term ‘white privilege’ should be changed to ‘white blessings’ to help more people get it. [The link i added above is of Louis Giglio apologising for his epic blunder!]

One of the statements that stood out for me in this video i watched afterwards where Drew Hart and Jarrod McKenna spoke about this incident – without scapegoating Louis Giglio at all – was when one of them spoke about white pastors who have recently begun their journey on race awareness and anti-racism. It went something along the lines of: Why is this conversation happening in the first place? You have a white pastor who is becoming aware of these things speaking as the expert. His posture should be listening and learning and using his platform to hand over the mic to those who have been doing the work for years.

Which is an important part. If you are new to the conversation, your primary task should be to get on with the work of listening and doing research and learning. Which is frustrating for white people and men people in particular because we like to be doing. We like to be fixing things.

Listening and Learning and Researching right now is the best thing you can do to fix things [somewhere along the line].

listen to understand

Listen to the words

One of the best forms of listening is reading [because you can’t interrupt and voice your opinion as easily].

One of my biggest learnings when it comes to race has been through changing up the people i listen to via the books/blogs/articles i read. 

Whereas before it would have likely been [not intentionally to my knowledge at all, ‘just the way it happened’] white middle-aged American Christian men, now i actively seek out people of colour, women and even people from other religious beliefs [learned so much about the Israel-Palestine conflict from writers of other faith]. And it has been incredible.

Austin Channing Brown, Te-Nihisi Coates, Michelle Alexander,  Chimamanda Ngozi Ndichie [my absolute favourite novelist and writer, alongside Terry Pratchett], Akala are just some that come to mind who have inspired and encouraged and help shape my journey in recent years.

Join a race/justice group on Facebook [This Dialogue Thing, Conversations for a Just South Africa…] and commit to just reading and listening without comment for six months and see how that goes.

Listening is actually a skill. We need to work at it. We will likely get it wrong and have too get up and dust ourselves off and try do better the next time. Commit to doing it though because it will add so much to your journey.

[For a piece i wrote a couple of years ago that briefly speaks to a different aspect of this, click here]