And the Art of Listening
I get an adrenaline rush from good conversations. The kind of conversations that catch you by surprise, make you feel alive, and connected to another human being in an authentic and meaningful way. I love nothing more than a conversation where you can share your stories and say what’s on your mind and heart, without fear of judgment. In a conversation where nothing feels off limits because, somehow, you have established that your intentions are to uplift each other, and not to put each other down, I feel that I’m always learning something new, and therefore, growing. This is the best stuff of life.
Last Wednesday I came home with a terrible migraine and stinking from hookah smoke, but floating on that mysterious adrenaline cloud. What started off as a casual outing to see the documentary film Arab Women Say What? with a friend I barely knew, turned into a casual dinner, followed by mint tea in a Turkish lounge, where my friend, her friend and his husband, and I, were sharing our stories. We soon learned (surprise, surprise) how much we have in common, despite our different nationalities (Moroccan, Albanian, French and Hungarian/Israeli) and backgrounds. By the end of the evening our friendship was sealed and we were planning a pot lock dinner. It was the kind of evening that uplifted my spirits and gave me a much needed hope in humanity. I was so happy I could cry.
Our inspiring conversation reminded me of Celeste Headlee’s excellent Ted talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” The talk dates back to May 2015, to a time in which Americans, according to researchers, were “more divided, than ever before in history.” This was before the election of Donald Trump, before Covid, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and before the word “woke” entered our vocabulary and was soon followed by heated culture wars between those wanting to defend freedom of speech at all costs, and those preaching cancellation on those “inciting violence.”
I highly recommend you listen to Headlee’s talk, but I’ll share some of my favourite take-aways here.
What Headlee described in 2015, was this: “We make decisions about where to live, who to marry and even who our friends are going to be, based on what we already believe.” This, as she explained, “means we’re not listening to each other. A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening, and somewhere along the way, we lost that balance.” I think the predicament that Headlee described then, hasn’t gotten any better, but I fear, has only gotten worse.
Meaningful conversations, the kinds where you feel connected to the other person, engaged and inspired by all that transpires between you; a conversation where you feel seen and heard, challenged maybe, but always respected – those conversations feel more like an anomaly in our present culture that encourages merciless public display of vitriol. It seems easier to block, or cancel a person who disagrees with us than to pause for a moment and consider that perhaps what they say might have some merit, an angle we have overlooked, and might even learn from. Or, at the very least, pause for a moment to consider that the person we are so busy criticizing (or, crucifying) is a living, breathing person. And in this climate, we hope to unite behind policies that will save our environment, eliminate racism, discrimination and hate, and establish world peace? How, if we can’t even listen to each other?
Headlee (quoting Stephen Covey) beautifully summarized the crux of the problem: “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.” And why? Because talking is easier. When we talk, we are in control. We are the center of attention, and we can bolster our identity.
But since when anything worth our while has been easy?
I was deeply moved by what comedian Jon Stewart said to his buddy Stephen Colbert in an interview last year, following the antisemitic controversies surrounding Chappelle, Irving and West. Stewart explained that cancellation is not the solution to the problem. “Penalizing somebody for having a thought is not the way to change their minds or gain understanding.” Stewart’s answer was met with silence from the Colbert crowd. “Hurt people hurt people. […] And if the point is to heal people, the only way to heal a wound is to open it up and cleanse it. And that stings. That hurts. But you have to expose it to air.” Stewart then went on to admit that he doesn’t enjoy these conversations. But “if we shut it down,” he said, “than we all retreat to our little corners of misinformation and it metastasizes. The point is not to let it metastasize.”
While I stay clear from abusive, disrespectful debates (and advise you to do the same!), I echo Stewart’s sentiments: uncomfortable conversations are the only way forward to heal this world, and our work starts on the individual level. At times it may seem small, insignificant and pointless in the face of so much hate, but what is the alternative?
Listening, and what I mean here, is active, engaged listening, is something that needs to be practiced, and taught. Ugandan born Canadian educator Irshad Manji said, “To be heard, you must be first willing to hear.” Her powerful words are my guiding principle.
We needn’t be so afraid of hearing others out. As Manji encourages us, “You can stand your ground and seek common ground at the same time.” The two principles needn’t conflict each other. In fact, they can support each other. As long as you are willing to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn, practice true listening – “a setting aside of oneself” (therapist M. Scott Peck) – and “be prepared to be amazed” (Headlee), you might even find yourself with an unexpected benefit: new friends, and your own personal growth.