June 23, 2020

How to listen to a painful story

The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have ignited important and necessary conversations in this country and around the world. Thanks to the willingness of business, health care, entertainment and community leaders to speak out for what is right, these conversations are happening more openly than ever before for many of us at work.

Whatever your experience of this time, conversations about racially motivated violence, injustice and systemic racism are not easy, but they are critical to moving our society to a better place. Many professionals, and especially leaders, feel a responsibility to engage.

But how? How do you engage in a way that is respectful and constructive? It starts with listening.

Listening at this time is important for everyone, but especially those of us who have lived with privilege, even if we are just becoming aware of (or don’t understand) that privilege. Listening leads to understanding, which opens the door to bringing about change for the better. Wherever you stand at this time, try these techniques. I hope they will be useful for conversations around race, and also for other difficult conversations.

Recognize your own response

We all feel something in response to conversations about racial injustice and racially driven violence. What is your response to the news, to what you are learning, and to the person in front of you?

Your response probably involves feelings (sadness, guilt, grief, anger), thoughts (I don’t understand, I want to help, this is not my problem, this IS my problem) and physical reactions (clenched fists, heart racing, weeping). Wherever you are, acknowledge it. This will enable you to set it aside as you listen.

Commit to listening

Deciding that you will listen to someone’s story is something we often do casually. When you do so intentionally, your ability to bring your full presence to the conversation improves. Your own focused presence for another person who has a story they want to tell is sometimes the most valuable gift of respect and caring that you can give.

Show up with the other person at the center of the conversation

You have acknowledged your response to this topic and will continue to do so as you listen, but it is important to manage your response. Someone else’s painful story is not about you, no matter how strong your own response.

This takes emotional intelligence – which I think of as the ability to identify and work on your own emotions, read the emotions of others and make decisions in the moment that take both of those into account in a constructive way. These tools will enable you to let the conversation be about the person you’re listening to.

Listen for understanding

Active listening is a skill that takes time to develop. Default (or “routine”) listening for most people often means they start preparing their response as soon as they hear the other person start talking. If you are mapping out an argument, you are not giving the other person your full attention.

Instead, let go of refuting their points, changing their perception or even planning how you will express your empathy. This gets in the way of your most important job, which is to be fully present and to listen to understand. If you struggle with this, as many people do, learn more about building your active listening skillset here.

Be fully present and minimize distractions

Hopefully this goes without saying, but cell phones and other distractions send exactly the wrong message. If you are going to commit to listening, make an effort to focus and put away anything that will pull your focus away. If this isn’t a time you can turn off your phone’s ring tone, it’s not the right time for a serious conversation. Find the right time, and engage without distraction.

Ask if there is anything you can do

When the time comes for you to speak, one of the most compassionate and helpful things you can do is to ask whether and how you can help. The person you’re listening to might not have an answer, and that’s OK. No need to push. You may be able to intuitively surmise what might help. Could you offer to drop a meal by for a working mom who has three children? Certainly. Could you offer to handle child care while this mom attends a meeting or takes some time to recharge? Definitely. She might not take you up on it, but an offer that is empathetic and contextual will likely be appreciated even if it is not accepted.

Ask to keep the door open

Whatever painful story has been discussed, neither of you will forget this conversation, and it can feel good to keep the conversation going. Ask if it’s OK to do this and inquire about the best way of doing so, but recognize that no one has a responsibility to keep you informed and to help you learn. When discussing racism in particular – especially when a white person is learning from a person of color – it is critical to recognize that we all have responsibility for educating ourselves. And people of color have long been talking about these issues without being heard. It’s time for the rest of society to embrace our own responsibility in this discourse and get educated.

Do the thing you can do

Listening to a painful story can be so powerful, but especially now, you might feel overwhelmed. And among all the ways people can make a difference, some of those ways will not work for you, and no one can do everything.

If you are not called to march but feel compelled to bake bread and bring that to others as a means to connect? Do it.

So you can’t join get-out-the-vote efforts but can register yourself and donate to Black Lives Matter? Those actions are also important.

No one person can fix everything, but we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we must not allow decision paralysis to leave us doing nothing but throwing up our hands. You can do something.

I am working on this myself. At the moment, my commitment is to educate myself and use my voice with the Metta Solutions community and beyond to bring about change. I am actively figuring out exactly what that will look like, but I can promise you that you will find it here. I will share my journey and how I will put it what I learn into action, and I invite you to do the same. My hope above all for the Metta Solutions community is that we can support and learn from one another and make the world a better place. I look forward to seeing what we can do.

Your perspective

How has listening helped you grow and learn during this time and others? Feel free to share what works best for you to engage and understand in the comments. We are all learning!

Last updated June 23, 2020

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