The Lost Art of Listening and Being Heard

The midterm elections have come and gone, and they have verified that there is a great split in our country. We are a divided nation, and with this has come increased hatred, stereotyping, and bigotry. There have been multiple reports on increased hate crimes and anti-Semitism, and there is a decrease in diplomatic communication between people of differing opinions. As a city dweller in the most diverse city in the United States, it is easy for me (and others) to blame those who voted "red" for the increased hatred, to state that they are unaware of their privilege and of the oppression of others. However, in doing so, I may be overlooking my own assumptions about people who come from a different background. We can hear the name calling, stereotyping, and assumptions from people on either side of the fence. We hear, "dangerous immigrant, faggot, liberal elite" but we also hear "red neck, white trash, bible thumpers." What is terrifying is when we start throwing these words out at each other without even knowing each other, talking to each other, asking each other questions, and listening to each other. Communication is our only hope.

So you may wonder what you're supposed to do about this. Start small. We cannot go around the entire country trying to be heard and trying to listen to others (well perhaps you could, but it might take up your entire life), but we can practice the lost art of listening and being heard in our immediate circles. Think about the opportunities that you may have for that. For example, with the holidays coming up, there may be ample opportunities. How often is it that people feel anxious about the holidays because they know that they will have to see their relative who has polar opposite thoughts from their own thoughts? It can be so easy to just want to avoid conversation, or to get angry and yell out your own opinions without caring to ask about the experience of the other person. Of course this makes sense, especially if you feel offended by the other person. However, where does this approach leave you? Feeling angry and without any resolution.

So how do we listen and hear? Let's talk about that!

When encountering someone who you is offensive to you, it is almost reflex to react. There is a difference between reacting and acting. What might be more helpful for creating a situation in which you feel heard, is to act. Ok, so what do you do? If you feel like you can, state how you have been offended. You can try statements such as, "I don't know if you are aware, but when you say things like, x, y, z, it really offends me." or "For the sake of our relationship, please do not make comments like that." or "Maybe you don't realize it, or you even think its a positive thing, but saying that is offensive to me." The other person is much more likely to want to hear you out if they do not feel attacked. This way of communicating your feelings may not always be possible if you feel really riled up or attacked yourself by the offensive comment or person, and it is ok to give yourself some space before choosing to speak if you do choose to. Sometimes, stepping away for a few moments and taking some deep breaths can help calm you down significantly so that you can then speak.

After stating your feelings about the comment, you may wish to elaborate on why the comment is offensive to you. Speak from experience rather than fact. Nobody likes to be schooled and made to feel ignorant, but people are much more open to hearing one's story. It can be helpful to speak about moments in your life that have brought you to have certain beliefs, opinions, and values. Besides, sharing in this manner is what can result in you feeling heard. Sharing facts is not as powerful in that way, in these specific types of interactions. 

Remember, an important piece of being heard is listening. As you're feeling offended, it may be easy for you to think to yourself that the other person is an "ignorant buffoon." This assumption may make you think that there isn't anything of significance that you can learn from the other person about their experience. Most of the time, this is probably untrue. So as you tell your story, if you feel that you can, maybe you can ask the other person if they have ever had an experience that makes them feel the way that they do. You may be surprised.

The reality is that even after such a discussion, perhaps you will still have different opinions, which is fine, if you have learned something new about what feels hurtful, disrespectful, and offensive to each other. Perhaps you have found a way to be able to continue to have open and respectful dialogues with each other. And perhaps, you will have more awareness into the ways you are biased or are quick to draw certain conclusions about others that may not be the case. The stereotypes, the name-calling, and the rageful rhetoric don't lead us forward, but communication can. 

If you are interested in speaking about Diversity and Inclusion Workshops or Trainings, please feel free to reach out or check out my Diversity and Inclusion page at If you have any questions about counseling, psychotherapy, or organizational consulting please feel free to schedule a free phone consultation.