It’s June and the Tennessee heat is no joke. I braved the brutal Southern heat this morning while mowing my grass. When I mow, I usually listen to a podcast. Today, it was a conversation between Dr. Brené Brown and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi called “Unlocking Us: How to Be an Antiracist.” It is an incredible conversation, one that is worth your time.
I chose to listen to this podcast in light of recent events that have rekindled long-held and justifiable racial tensions in the U.S.. It’s part of a personal pattern I’ve adopted: to listen and to lean. I learned to practice the listen and lean technique after putting my foot in my mouth one too many times. It’s a pattern that slows me down when I’m too quick to jump in with my two cents. And as a professor of communication, it’s a pattern I teach my students as a way to prevent hurt and misunderstandings.
In our blog today, I want to share how this simple practice has helped me. My hope is that you might find it helpful too.
Step one is to listen. This is tougher than it sounds. Sometime in recent history we have experienced a trend in which both individuals and companies feel the need to communicate some type of response, informal or formal, to current events. Pretty much every company I’ve ever interacted with online sent me an email explaining their response to COVID-19. And I’ve watched as companies are sending out their formal responses to the George Floyd murder and racism.
Responses aren’t bad. But they are part of trend that could quickly go awry, if it hasn’t already. Julian Treasure is an expert on listening. He shares this quote in his TED Talk “5 Ways to Listen Better.” “We’re becoming impatient. We don’t want oratory anymore; we want sound bites. And the art of conversation is being replaced — dangerously, I think –by personal broadcasting.” When we post or tweet or otherwise publish a response to a current event, here’s what it does. Yes, it lends our voice to the cause which is incredibly important. I don’t want to undermine that in any way. But if we aren’t careful, we might find that our main reason for responding is that it absolves us of guilt. It seems to check the box of some unwritten social responsibility. And it keeps us from doing real, uncomfortable, tough work. If we can publish a “response,” we can keep our hands clean.
But that’s not how good communication works. Communication is messy and reciprocal and many-sided. We don’t grow or change much when we are just shouting sound bites at each other from our separate towers. Listening is the springboard to learning. That’s why it’s so important to listen first.
Once we’ve taken time to listen, we need to lean. I’ve found that this step must always follow listening, never precede it. Here’s why, when it comes time to lean into the topic, you’ll be required to engage. And you can only engage responsibility after time spent listening and learning.
Leaning into the discomfort and the discord is tough. But just like listening, it’s vital. It’s vital for individuals and companies and society on the whole. In the podcast mentioned above, Dr. Brené Brown says, “On top of knowing that you are loved and worthy of love and belonging, I don’t know if there is a greater gift that we can give our kids than the ability to lean into difficult conversation and be vulnerable.” Difficult conversations are just that, difficult. But they are so worth the discomfort.
So what does it look like to lean in? It looks like actively engaging in conversations where you might not agree with everyone. And it means being committed to earnestly try to understand others’ viewpoints in the midst of conversation. It also looks like reading texts from people who have different perspectives than you do. It looks like setting aside time to educate yourself.
I implore you. Please take time to listen and to lean before you ever take the stage to present your ideas. This pattern won’t just serve useful in the face of large crises like pandemics and racial injustice. It will serve useful for any topic you are called to present on or engage in.
Will you join me? You don’t have to do it in the June Tennessee heat while mowing the grass, but please take time to listen and lean. It’s a pattern I wholeheartedly believe will make our presentations and our communication and our world better.
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