Trying to Listen, Learning to Speak

If someone listens, deeply, you’ve been heard, which helps you absorb it, and you can lay it at the feet of the right god. — Anne Lamott

Last week, we published a post written by our CEO Mona Abadir that received numerous angry responses from people who support the administration’s border policies. She wrote her piece in support of reuniting immigrant families and reflected on her own parents’ immigration to the United States and the life they were able to create here. Mona expressed the belief that, “We are one family of humanity. We must not allow divisions in ethnicity, religion, gender, culture, and politics.  If we succeed, a safer world for our children and our grandchildren will be built. It will be a world based in peace, and upon guaranteeing social justice.”

Some of the negative responses amounted to trolling — quick sniper hits on a position that was obviously thoughtfully expressed. Although we chose not to respond to these attacks, it started me thinking in a new way (for me) about what seems like the impossibility of civil discourse in times of sharp divisions. Of course, this is an ancient problem. Have human beings ever known how to listen to one another when they disagree? What allows for a respectful exchange of ideas? What can each of us in our small way do to promote understanding in our own exchanges, or at least kindness? When is this not even an option?

If I had any real answers to this, I’d be a genius. I’m certainly not that, but I work in the realm of language, and I’m constantly moved by the capacity we have for communicating through words, as clumsy as they are. I was recently able to observe an ongoing exchange between people who are trained in respectful, non-violent speech as they worked through a difficult issue. I was impressed by their ability to express themselves in a way that showed unfailing respect for the people they were talking to. All the participants in this forum seemed to care what lay behind the opinions people on the “other side” of the issue held, and many of them tried, gently, to encourage those with differing opinions to freely communicate the reasons or histories behind their stances. (People on all sides of the issue did this.)

I should mention that this was an issue that will most likely never be fully resolved. It seemed to me that, while the people involved may learn new things through this process and solutions for moving ahead will be found through compromise and consensus (because that’s necessary), the deepest value of the exchanges appeared to lie in the fact that people felt seen and heard as they hashed things through. Somehow this is an extraordinary thing: to feel seen and heard. To be listened to and respected for our basic humanity. 

In the past, I’ve often felt that the language used by groups that specialize in respectful communication was too prescribed; that words agreed upon by their training weren’t flexible enough for expressing things deeply. I’m a poet and an avid reader of poems and I love the way poetry uses words creatively and unexpectedly. But the problem is, without a form to turn to (at least initially) we often resort to whatever reactive language comes most easily. Prescribed words can provide a structure through which to begin the difficult process of careful discourse, much as the rules of formal poetry can provide poets with tools for navigating the wild. The best free verse poets seem to be those who understand form and venture outside of it in full knowing.

Underlying these rules, whether for conversation or poetry, is an even more fundamental skill: the ability to listen. To listen to the world so that you might record what you hear in a poem. To listen to another human being so you might accord them full humanity for their needs, their efforts, and their pain. To listen past the point, at times, of your own apparent well-being, so that you might enter into the possibility of a greater well-being for all.

And the only way to learn to listen to others is to investigate your own inner thoughts; to learn, through intentional practice, to hear inside yourself, and to understand and accept what you hear. Then you can turn to others with the same quiet attentiveness. As our Creative Director Sabrina Coryell has written, “Deep listening is about honing the inner ear, and hearing with the ears of the heart.”

I’m not saying that this is easy. The dedicated practice of both processes— that of heartful listening, and that of careful speaking— is essential. But it’s the very best kind of work because it leads to real connection, both within and without. Here are two resources I’ve found indispensable for this kind of journey:

For listening:

For communicating:

What I’m suggesting here isn’t always called for. When a “troll” appears  in the real world or online there’s nothing to do but swerve from the non-conversation. But in most other circumstances, I believe that the only thing that works is to first listen, and then to communicate with gentle, nuanced care.

I’m asking you what you think about this. I’m listening to the sound of our common humanity.


You wept in your mother’s arms
and I knew that from then on
I was to forget myself.

Listening to your sobs,
I was resolved against my will
to do well by us
and so I said, without thinking,
in great panic, To do wrong
in one’s own judgment,
though others thrive by it,
is the right road to blessedness.
Not to submit to error
is in itself wrong
and pride.

Standing beside you,
I took an oath
to make your life simpler
by complicating mine
and what I always thought
would happen did:
I was lifted up in joy.

David Ignatow

Cover image: Sarah Campbell, 2013