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Listen Closely

When I was a kid, the local park district brought a gymnastics coach to our school multi-purpose room. A couple of evenings a week she would teach us tumbling and trampoline and floor exercise. The coach brought her own line-up of experienced gymnasts, and they served as good inspirations to the rest of us, who were pure beginners. Once my novice friends and I learned a few tricks, though, we felt like we really knew what we were doing. We would wow kids on the playground with round offs and handstands, and I imagined myself to be a pretty darned good gymnast. Back at the gym that night, though, I would remember how many thousands of miles I still had to go to actually be even proficient.

Up to now, I think I’ve mostly been a person who listens with my mouth open.

I’ve been reminded of that humbling experience recently when our college has been focused on infusing equity into all of our work. Everything I read and hear tells me that I need to listen better—to students who are ignored and mistreated because they black and brown, and to African American and Latinx faculty and staff on campus who have an experience similar to our students. Of course, I have often fancied myself to be a pretty good listener. I studied communications in college and I taught Interpersonal Communication for years. When I started to really think about it, though, I realized that I know how to listen, but that listening makes me uncomfortable—whether I’m doing it in my work or at home with my partner or with my friends.

What's hard for me is that I want to fix whatever someone is telling me about. While people are recounting what it feels like to be them, I want to tell them that I understand. I long to tell them that I can help them mend whatever is broken. Or, I want to tell them that they are not alone. This might sound empathetic and supportive, and in essence it is. But, it is not always very useful—for them or me. I’ve practiced this week just listening—simply thinking about what someone is saying to me, without a big response. Maybe some questions, maybe asking for clarification, but not starting into a long session of me talking. When I’ve done that, I’ve realized how infrequently I do it. I feel fidgety and like I ought to be able to come up with something to say to make the whole situation more comfortable—probably mostly for me!

This is micro-managing my own behavior. I get that. But the last thing I want to do is to be an old person who has “a way of being” and then leave it at that. I want to appreciate what I do well, but remember always that there are ways to be more present, honest, and supportive. Up to now, I’ve mostly been a person who listens with my mouth open. Maybe that’s better than someone who doesn’t listen at all but, like I did back on that tumbling mat, I'm beginning to get a much clearer picture of the work I need to do.

Listening in its purest form requires hearing what someone is saying, watching them to see what makes them happy or uncomfortable, and limiting the distractions in my own head to increase my focus and concentration. Simply hearing someone say words and being able to repeat them back is not enough. It helps to remember that the only real way I can understand another person and his or her experiences is to listen. I don't have to be perfect at it, but simply setting the intention to listen as fully as I can will help.

Most of us have big dreams about connecting better with our friends and family. We long for a deeper connection with other humans and we wish for a world grounded more in love and respect than in fear and hatred. I’m thinking these days that listening more fully and less judgmentally is the first big step in that direction.

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