This happens when we don’t really listen

Apr 28, 2021
Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

Here’s a story adapted from Beverly Tatum’s, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, that can help us see, not only how our intent operates while listening, but how people became so disconnected in the first place.

Long-time friends Jackson, who is African-American, and Seth, who is White, are just entering high school. They have been friends since kindergarten, had sleepovers together, and hung out on the track team and in band.

Early in the year, their English teacher asks the class to read passages from Dickens' Great Expectations aloud. When Jackson finishes, the teacher comments, "Well done, Jackson. You're so articulate!"

At lunch, Jackson says to Seth: "Did you hear what Mrs. Morris just said? She's totally racist!"

At that moment, Seth has a choice. He can assume or listen.

Most of us, youth or adults, assume our model of the world applies to everyone, and the conversation probably sounds something like this:

“She’s not racist! She's really nice. Nice to me at least. I think you're misinterpreting what she said.”

Then Seth adds, "Don't be so sensitive, she gave you a compliment!”

Is Seth listening to his friend’s feelings and needs? Is his intent to learn and understand?

No, Seth assuming that Jackson has had the same experiences as he has.

Identity is defined as “the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person or group.”

Seth doesn’t live each day thinking about looking and sounding different, or fitting in to a “dominant culture.” His parents didn’t come up in the civil rights movement. His grandparents didn’t live through desegregation. He has never had "The Talk” or participated in dinner table conversations about paying close attention to how he’s treated because of his skin color.

Neither Jackson’s nor Seth’s experience is right or wrong, but they are different.

So what happens next?

From Seth’s small statement, a rift begins between two friends who simply see the world through different lenses.

Jackson looks to his Black friends to listen with empathy. They ask him questions about the experience rather than reject his feelings and needs. And the next thing you know, the Black and White kids are sitting separately in the cafeteria.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Seth could have said "Dude, that sucks!" or whatever kids say these days to indicate empathy. "But, let me be honest. I don't see it. Help me understand."

A similar dynamic exists in workplace interactions. We all bring our own identity with us everywhere we go.

If we want to connect with others -- to have them come to see us as trusted teammates, thoughtful leaders, or simply someone who can get the job done -- we will ask, rather than assume.

This starts with our intent to understand when we listen.

Confident Communicator Challenge

Before beginning your next conversation, make it your intention to simply understand what the other person is feeling and needing, even if you’re confused, upset, or think you’re right. After the conversation, think or journal about how having this intent changed your interaction from previous conversations with that person.


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