Listening and Talking

In the last few weeks, for various reasons ranging from the Day of Dialogue, to the election, and to simple day to day interactions, me and some people that I know have been dealing with a very serious dilemma. How do we talk constructively with others about serious issues? And how do we make sure the we are being open to feedback and potential criticisms?

These questions are important for many reasons. For one, I think this topic is something that everyone considers to different degrees. My friends at the Compton Center and I think about it regularly, as we deal with these difficult topics on a day to day basis. But there are people on campus who think about this topic as well, although not as frequently. The Day of Dialogue is one of the rare examples of a time when people on campus have to confront the real and troublesome issues of diversity and inclusion, and for many people the fear of saying something wrong, offending someone, or “being attacked” prevents them from even engaging with these discussions at all.

So how do we learn to communicate better with each other about topics such as racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, religion, and all the other difficult topics that need to be addressed if we want to make real changes?

First of all we need to address our own misconceptions about the way people talk to us. In order to feel more comfortable talking, we need to be better listeners. One of the worst things we can fear and think about these discussions is that we are going to be attacked. Yes, people who are in marginalized groups feel angry, frustrated, and upset, and that might be very prevalent in their voice and physical body language as they speak about their struggles and experiences. Yes, the topic they are covering might have to do with the injustices and the oppression held by an identity group to which you belong. Yes, you might say something that might be offensive or taken the wrong way and someone will point it out to you. But this does not mean that they are attacking you.

These are sensitive topics because they are about identity groups, and our identity is exactly how we understand ourselves, so of course we will have strong emotions about them. But we must be willing to hear constructive criticism to our statements and our implicit prejudices. The reality of the matter is that we all have implicit biases and prejudices as a product of being born and raised in this (and any) society. There is no way for us to grow, to have better understanding of the issues, or to know our role in making positive change unless we are willing to be corrected, to see how our actions and thoughts effect others, and learn what we can do to become more aware and empathetic individuals.

This is not an easy skill. It is natural for people to get defensive when people criticize them, even if it is done in the most respectful way. But this is the very reaction we need to address. We need to think before we react, realize when we are feeling defensive and ask ourselves, “Why do I feel this way right now?” Not only will this simple act of reflection help you better understand your own views and feelings, but it is a tool you can turn outwards when speaking with others.

When you are having a difficult conversation and someone is getting upset or is trying to give constructive feedback, take a moment of reflection or a moment of seeing the situation from their point of view. I see this as a humanizing technique that can help us realize that the person with whom we are interacting with is a human being with feelings, experiences, and and struggles of their own. Just because we may not have struggled with the same issues they have struggled with, does that really invalidate their experiences? Just because we have never personally dealt with the discrimination they have felt, does that really mean it does not exist?

I think these realizations show the second most important thing that we can realize as communicators, which is that there are an infinite number of human experiences that are possible, and while there may be overlaps in feeling and similarities in these experiences, at the end each is unique because the person who experienced them is their own combination of different circumstances, moments, and thought processes. If we can realize that our own experience is just one out of the many, then maybe we can learn to be more open, accepting, and empathetic to others when talking about sensitive issues.

I know that this is a difficult thing to do, and that it will not even work in all cases. There are simply too many people in the world who have not realized the need to talk about issues, many who do not even recognize that there are issues, and others who are so focused in their own experiences that they cannot even begin to fathom what life is like for others not like them. I sincerely hope and like to believe that when you are empathetic, respectful, and engaging with others, that they will do the same for you, but I am not naive enough to think that this will be how every single one of these conversations plays out.

This brings me to the last important point that we must realize, not to be better communications, but to maintain our own sanity in an often discouraging and depressing world. We cannot teach everyone. We cannot change everyone. We cannot force anyone into realization. There will be times that we may try to engage in constructive dialogue with a person who does not want to hear it, who will deny our feelings and experiences, and who will become defensive and even hostile. In these situations we must be able to walk away and know that it is not our fault for not being able to reach them. Otherwise we will feel defeated every time someone chooses to live in ignorance rather than be open to difference and change.

I know that these conversations are almost never easy, but neither is anything else in life that is worth doing. Becoming a better listener and a more aware speaker will help make these conversations more productive, but they will still remain difficult. In the end, when you leave these conversations you bring with you an understanding about yourself, about others, and about the world that you did not have before. These are the conversations that will have the most impact on who you are and how you see and choose to act in the world. I urge us all to engage in them more often and with open arms and hearts.

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